When we get triggered into stress throughout the day, it would be nice if we could put the world on pause, go to our happy place, recover, and move on. Truth is, mostly, we can’t do that yet; we typically see stress as being caused by forces outside of us (situations and other people) and feel pretty well stuck with our stress until those outside forces disappear. And, until we look closely enough to understand how our own habits of mind and body figure into the equation, it’s true – we are more or less stuck.
In the meantime, there’s still a way out. It’s a five step path and it works if you work it.
Here goes - short version then long version:
Notice you’re stressed
Stay out of your head
Deal with the physiological reality
Ask four questions
Decide what needs doing to prevent being triggered in the future
NOTICE YOU ARE STRESSED. Obvious, perhaps, but one of the first things people will say when you remark on how stressed they seem, is that really everything is actually fine. They’ll deny the existence of stress. If you don’t admit you’re in the middle of the storm, you won’t do the things you need to do to keep yourself safe; and if you don’t cop to the fact you’re stressed, you won’t do the things you need to do to cool down.
STAY OUT OF YOUR HEAD. Avoid at all costs the compulsion to look for who or what caused your stress. They can’t do anything about it. The stress is here. It’s real. And it’s yours-all-yours.
DEAL WITH THE PHYSIOLOGICAL REALITY. Stress is, foremost, a physiological phenomenon – our bodies tighten, our breathing becomes shorter, the heart beats faster, our skin temperature changes. No one is immune. So, instead of trying to find and eliminate the thing or person you believe caused your stress, do something to counteract these physiological realities. It’s your body, tell it to relax – neck, shoulders, back, legs. It’s your breathe, so slow it down with … you guessed it, slow, deep, complete breaths. This brings the heart rate down. If it’s a real doozy of a situation and you can’t even focus enough to breathe deeply, find the coldest water you can find and drench your face in it (ideally your whole head, but I recognize the need for a presentable hairdo at work.) This is called a “state change” and it is amazingly effective.
ASK FOUR QUESTIONS. Once your physiological state has changed, you can function again. This is a time to ask yourself four questions, which I recommend you do in writing. Only takes a minute or two and, over time, it will change your life. Seriously.
What actually happened? (Note: This is NOT a question about people’s character, personality, past behaviors, or intentions toward you. It’s about making simple observations. It sounds like this: So-and-so approached me in the hallway. So-and-so said X, Y and Z. I got triggered! That’s it. That’s an observation.
What were my thoughts at the time?
What were my emotions at the time?
What did I feel, physically, at the time?
You will no-doubt notice the conspicuous absence of any question that points back to making judgments about other people. Judgments are excellent happy-hour conversation. They don’t also happen to do anything but forge bonds between people against other people and create the conditions for more stress. More on this in future posts.
DECIDE WHAT NEEDS DOING to prevent being triggered in the future. You have three choices.
Accept the situation and move on.
If it is appropriate and useful, communicate clearly and directly with the person whose words or behavior might have triggered your response.
Take direct action to change your practices or your situation in a way that prevents you being triggered in the future. If your feeling is that taking action is not possible or will not change, then consider getting outside perspective from someone neutral (not a colleague or family member).