I’d like to tell you about a friend of mine who had a life-changing epiphany about stress while shopping at the grocery store.
It was around 5:30 p.m. on a Friday night; the store was packed with shoppers on their way home to start the weekend. She headed for the checkout line with her son.
She made her way through the narrow aisle and accidently bumped another shopper’s cart. When she apologized, the shopper snarled back at her, “You didn’t have to bump into me!”
Here is what happened next, in my friend’s own words:
“Thinking I was being calm, I stared the woman down and reminded her (tersely) that I had apologized! Of course, I wasn’t calm at all. The truth is, I was instantly infuriated with this stranger, until I remembered I had my 11-year-old son with me. Suddenly I saw the example I was setting, and I was immediately aware that she wasn’t the problem. The real problem was my reaction to something I honestly didn’t need to take personally.”
Here’s what I’d like you to notice about my friend’s interaction: She saw herself. She acknowledged that her reaction was a choice. And she decided, then and there, to make the choice to pause, calm down, and take full responsibility for her reaction, instead of blaming the other person.
It’s just a matter of time before any of us find ourselves in this situation: someone around us is reacting, and we start reacting to their reaction.
So, here are some tips for dealing effectively with this all too familiar turn of events.
1. Give yourself a break or otherwise remove yourself from the situation.
When we’re not paying attention, we can (needlessly) take on other people’s stress. I think we understand this intuitively, but finally, research has proven it – seeing stressed out people increases our likelihood of feeling stressed out.1
One group of researchers even found that 26 percent of people experienced elevated levels of the stress-hormone cortisol simply by observing someone who was stressed. This means that just being around stressed-out people actually changes the chemistry in our own bodies!
This explains why we can find ourselves in a room with someone who’s sad, and wind up feeling sad, too (whether we know them or not). Or why we can stand around someone who’s angry or nervous or excited, and inexplicably feel the same emotion. (Ever say to someone, “I have so much anxiety right now and I don’t even know why!”??)
Knowing the science is comforting, but it doesn’t really help us avoid taking on the stress of others. What can you do the next time you find yourself in the company of stressed-out people and removing yourself isn’t an option?
2. Acknowledge the reality around you and respond accordingly.
While it may work to remove yourself from a tense situation with a stranger at the grocery store, the reality is that stressed-out people are everywhere. So it’s important that you learn to avoid inadvertently taking on stress from everyone else—especially since you probably have enough of your own to deal with.
The key here is to adopt the role of a neutral witness. When you recognize someone around you is feeling anger, grief, or anxiety, remind yourself that you’re witnessing their emotions. . . and that these emotions are not your own. This is especially helpful with people closer to you.
This does two things:
- First, it gives you time to slow down and calm down. When you make this your first priority, it helps your brain diffuse your stress response before it turns into a full-blown reaction.
- Secondly, it allows you to calmly witness the emotions of others with compassion, so you don’t throw gas on the fire. The truth is, nothing diffuses tension between two people better than one of them maintaining a non-reactive emotional state.
Here’s the deal. Your body is hardwired to react to external triggers, and for a good reason: survival. When someone runs into a room screaming that the house is on fire, you want your stress response to kick in on high gear so you can immediately remove yourself to safety.
That same stress response, however, reacts to the emotions of others as if they are just as threatening. But when you can see that the emotions belong to the other person and not to you, this helps your brain recalibrate and properly assess. And when your brain further understands that this situation is not a personal threat, that indeed, no house is on fire, then you can respond appropriately, rather than reacting.
This realization can occur within seconds once you get in the habit of pausing and calming down in the presence of a stressor.
3. Find the “right” habits so you can avoid the “wrong” actions.
When my friend got frustrated with the angry shopper, she quickly understood that the real problem was her own reactivity to the other shopper’s reaction. She admitted, “If I had taken just one deep breath before responding, the lady would have been gone before I could have uttered anything back to her.”
Compassion would have also “informed” my friend that it was 5:30 p.m., so it was highly possible that the angry shopper was really just an overly tired and hungry woman who was trying to make the slog home for dinner. Instead of neutrally witnessing the shopper’s comments, my friend absorbed the shopper’s reactive energy and in return, she wound up mirroring the same negative behavior.
This happened because my friend was reacting out of her natural stress response of fight or flight, rather than waiting to calm down so she could have compassion for the other person, and give herself permission to not respond at all.
4. Give yourself permission to NOT respond.
Breath + compassion + waiting to respond (or not) = a better way to deal with stress.
The next time you feel your stress ramping up as a result of someone else’s emotions, remind yourself that you are only responsible for your own reactions. Then, be sure to ask yourself the following questions before determining how to respond:
- Am I neutrally witnessing this person’s reaction to stress?
- Have I given myself time to breathe and process?
- Is my best option to not respond? (At least, not yet.)
Take good care : )