This past month I undertook an experiment: To sufficiently and consistently manage my actions on the face of ‘negative’ triggered emotional states. I originally wanted to call it Zero Stress July, but upon further reflection I realized that I can’t necessarily control or foresee situations that may pop up that I might feel stress. Case in point: My only major reaction all month was to being stuck in traffic on the ride up to vacation in Maine. We got off the highway for lunch and in downtown Kittery and the traffic was gridlocked. Being on the road for two hours already and ready to have a break, I felt stressed and reacted by raising my voice, being judgmental, and getting short with my family. This all lasted for about 5 or 10 minutes, when I realized what was going on, that I was having a knee jerk reaction to something I couldn’t control. My whole intention for Zero Reaction July was to take a month and be hyper focused on breathing in the face of any stressful feelings that came up from life situations. My hypothesis was that if I could breath and calm myself down in the face of my triggers, then I could actually keep my well-being intact and choose consciously what action I would take to remediate the stressful feeling. I forgot this in traffic and I had a minor meltdown.
What I teach and coach in my work is that negative actions or behaviors are not usually what support our highest values and aspirations for great relationships at home and at work. I call actions such as sarcasm, gossip, avoidance, eye rolling, and yelling negative because they don’t usually get us a desired result that we really want. How is gossiping about a co-worker’s tardiness going to resolve the issue? How is sarcasm about someone’s personal style going to change it? These actions are understandable because they are seeking to release the unease we feel in a situation, but they usually aren’t too helpful. And for that matter if we are in control of our own well-being, then we wouldn’t consciously choose to be negative. I haven’t met anyone yet in my work who wants to have negative reactions to others. But sometimes we feel that we are at our wits end and that yelling, for instance, is the only thing that will work (it does get results but also creates fear or frustration on those being yelled at).
One really interesting insight that came up for me in July was that if I feel hungry, agitated at all, or tired, then I will have the propensity to get triggered and react negatively more easily, as was the case on the highway (tired). I also realized that we have many expectations in life, such as having your child listen to you, that sometimes aren’t met. When our expectations are breeched we can have a tendency to have a knee-jerk reaction as well.
So all of July, I focused on breathing in the face of any negative feeling, such as anxiety, frustration, anger, loneliness, sadness, etc. When a negative feeling would pop in it was if an alarm went off in my head to take some deep breaths. What tends to happen to me is when I get frustrated I let out a deep sigh, like I have been burdened. I must admit that I caught myself sigh a few times, but the sigh would actually point me to deeper breathing instead of my head full of judgment and blame. Then when sufficiently calm, I could take an action that support my values. One action was to let go of whatever is bothering me, not in a denial way, but a self-coaching “this isn’t a big deal” sort of way, you know, sort of letting go of control. That worked sometimes. Another action was to state the feeling that I felt, such as “I am feeling frustrated that you are listening to daddy,” for instance. One other was to give feedback about a situation, which is similar to the last action, just a bit more formal. And yet one other one was to just change the setting or subject (like going outside for a walk, or turning some music on). Lastly, used sparingly, another action could be to be pointed, not mean, but straight in no uncertain terms with the person that you mean business. These are all more positive strategic actions that you can choose, the operative word being choose, when under duress, if you slow down enough to remember them and not fall prey to negativity.
I read a bumper sticker recently that said “Be calm, and Carry on”. This is the gist of what I am saying. Unfortunately it’s not that easy and I wonder if the person who’s car has this sticker remembers this under duress. My guess is probably not. It is an empty platitude until you put the rubber on the road and practice, practice, practice. This is what Zero Reaction July was all about. As a consequence of the positive outcomes of this practice, I am happy to report that I have moved into Zero Reaction August. I throw the gauntlet out to you and would love to hear comments about how it goes for you and what you find on this journey of lessening stress in your life.