The truth is, none of us can avoid or prevent stressful things from happening to us, no matter how hard we try. When stress hits, what makes all the difference is how we deal with the situation. The question boils down to this: Will we react? Or will we muster the presence to respond calmly instead?
The problem is that when we react emotionally, we lack the clarity of mind to evaluate whether or not we’re actually calm. To solve this problem, I use muscular tension as a barometer. When I think I’m calm enough to know what to say or do, but my body is tense and coiled tight like a spring, this is a huge red flag that I’m nowhere near relaxed enough to respond constructively.
I’m reminded of a time when I launched into a full-blown reaction. The father of one of my teenage daughter’s class mates had somehow gotten the school to allow my daughter to sign out of school so she could pick up his daughter from the airport during school hours! When I found out about it, I confronted him. But rather than apologize, he told me that I was the problem. It was no big deal, and I just needed to lighten up and calm down.
Well, he was right about calming down because his attitude ignited Mt. Vesuvius inside my body. I could feel the heat blazing its way to my throat, and what came out of my mouth was nothing short of volcanic! Even though my anger may have been completely justified, my emotional reaction was in charge, erupting with blame and righteous indignation – not exactly a constructive way to address the problem.
In hindsight, if restoring calm before this interaction had been my conscious priority, I might have moved through the situation with a lot more grace. As it was, I was left to take my lessons from the aftermath. My reaction only served to put the focus on me and my “out of control” emotions instead of staying aimed at the problem.
What might have gone differently had I addressed my reactivity first, before attempting to address the problem? Well, even if his reaction had been the same, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have dealt with it by blasting him, something I truly regretted after the fact. Our children were friends, and this exchange certainly did not pave the way for future constructive conversations.
Knowing what I know now about emotional reactivity, how would I have cultivated the presence to respond rather than react? To begin with, I would have checked in with my body first and addressed my tension, which was obviously through the roof! I would have waited until I calmed down before attempting to discuss the matter. I would have acknowledged that at the heart of my reaction was a fear of powerlessness to control a situation that was beyond my personal power to effect.
I’d like to share with you a reflective exercise I find extremely helpful in transforming how I approach highly stressful circumstances. This exercise works by addressing tension as a doorway to restoring calm after an upset.
For the exercise, I will ask you to recall a situation from your own life when you were under fire and unable to stop yourself from saying or doing something you later regretted. The stressor might be as simple as a rude driver or an inconsiderate neighbor. It could be a recurring issue with your significant other or family member—that button they just keep pressing—or maybe a matter related to a significant life change.
- Recall a situation that comes to mind in which you’ve reacted when under fire. Go with the one that comes first to mind rather than overthinking it.
- Let yourself tune into the emotional landscape of the situation and really feel it while you scan your body for tension and release it through the breath. I usually find my shoulders are the easiest to work with. To release tension, I let my shoulders be heavy and relaxed on the inhale, and gently slide down my back on the exhale.
- Identify the fear of powerlessness that was triggered by the incident. Then, as you release your tension, consciously let go of wanting to be in control.
- Notice how the situation feels when you stop trying to control it. Circumstances may still be upsetting and painful, but just for now, notice the difference when you genuinely accept what happened as you breathe and relax.
- Look for even the slightest movement towards acceptance as you loosen your grip on your opinions and judgements about what happened. Try to see the situation more objectively and notice how this shift in perspective shifts your experience.
Now that you’ve had a chance to reprocess the past event, you’ve also increased your ability to be present whenever you feel your reactions kicking in when stress hits in the future. This awareness will help you respond to the situation by relaxing and releasing tension, rather than launching into reactive action.
I hope you also notice that the fear of powerlessness has diminished because you’ve accepted the facts of what happened. Bear in mind we often lash out when we feel the most powerless. Even our annoyance at inconsiderate people—at their refusal to respect us, our personal space or the public space we share—is based on its reminder that we lack control of even our immediate surroundings.
As counterintuitive as it might seem, we give up what power we do have when we let our reactive emotions take charge. Self-empowerment is all about having the personal wherewithal to calm ourselves down. When we’re calm and grounded, the mind and body and emotions are balanced and working in harmony to make changes that serve us in the long term. But this doesn’t just happen. It requires cultivating awareness of tension in our bodies as the first step to intervene on our tendency to give our power over to reactive emotions.
Take good care : )