Talk about stress and how to address it in healthy ways. — With emotional intelligence, the goal is to be able to identify and respond to your emotions (and the emotions of others) in healthy, helpful ways. I talk about stress as just another feeling people experience. People have a “stress response,” but our bodies also have responses to sadness, anger, fear, excitement, and other feelings. For example, you might feel a lump in your throat when you’re sad, an upset stomach when you’re scared, or tight shoulders when you’re stressed. Talking about handling stress is a simple way to ease into mental health awareness.
As a part of my series about the “5 Ways That Businesses Can Help Promote The Mental Wellness Of Their Employees” I had the pleasure of interviewing Jeanette Hargreaves, M.Div.
Jeanette is a parenting coach, author, and public speaker. She helps moms who lose their temper, and speaks to groups about stress, anger, and emotional intelligence. Her book, The Day I Threw Banana Bread and Almost Went to Jail: True Stories About How I Used to Lose My Temper (and How I Learned to Stop), is available for purchase online.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive into our discussion, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
I grew up with a dad who yelled at and spanked me as a kid. When my twins were born, I yelled and spanked my kids too, but it didn’t feel right to me, so I got help. As a mom with a Master’s in Divinity, now I help others break the cycle.
After I stopped yelling (2018 was the last time I lost my temper), I came to see it as a habit. So I teach: Yelling is a habit you can break. It’s a physical, mental, and environmental habit the whole family supports, similar to cigarette smoking. In my family we all were addicted to the rush of adrenaline we got when I yelled, because it was scary! When I first stopped yelling, the family unconsciously tried to push me back into the habit, because they missed the rush. But it’s not as obvious as smoking cigarettes, because if you were raised in a yelling family, you experience it as “discipline” or as a natural response to anger (it’s neither ideally). Yelling is a habit you inherit, and it’s simply not necessary nor useful for a happy, healthy life.
Even though my career isn’t religious, doing this work is my ministry, my calling. I’m motivated by my love for people, and I’m also motivated by the anger I feel when I think about how many families still think that yelling is ok.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I’ve introduced myself to thousands of people with the phrase, “I help moms who lose their temper, because I used to lose my temper every day.” It sets the stage for very unusual conversations. The most interesting thing I’ve found is that people tend to fall into four groups. The first small group grew up in self-regulated households, and they don’t know many people who yell. The second small group has a story similar to mine; they grew up in yelling families but they healed from it. The third group is also small, and those are the folks who are still in yelling families, but they’re ready for the yelling to stop. The largest group, however, are the people for whom yelling is normal and accepted. They usually say, “Do you really not yell at your kids? Everyone yells.”
It’s like we live in bubbles where we have different experiences around yelling. I broke out of the yelling bubble and into the group where yelling isn’t OK anymore.
What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?
I advise fellow parenting educators to educate without pressure. Here’s what I mean: some people aren’t ready to hear the latest research or modern parenting techniques. Perhaps they’re not ready to let go of the old standbys of rewards and punishments they were raised with. You aren’t responsible for them. It’s exhausting trying to change everyone. Instead, work with people who are ready and willing to make changes in their family.
I’m giving this advice because it’s advice I try to swallow regularly, with varying levels of success. It would be nice if we lived in a world without yelling, wouldn’t it?
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
Train as many employees as you can in emotional intelligence, especially leadership. Emotional intelligence creates an environment that feels safe and caring so people feel empowered towards engagement and problem solving. For example, emotional intelligence led me to stop blaming others for my situation and take ownership for my own actions. You want engaged, empowered employees. Beyond the workplace, emotional intelligence will benefit their homelife too, and if an employee is happier at home, they’ll be happier at work.
If you’re looking for evidence-based research on the impact emotional intelligence has in the workplace, Six Seconds has it (I have no affiliation).
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
I have my Master’s in Divinity, so I’m going to quote Jesus from his sermon on the mount. In Matthew 7:12, he sums up all the law and prophets saying, “Do to others what you would have them do to you.” This phrase is also known as The Golden Rule. It came to mind one day as I taught a workshop for a group of 40 moms at a local church.
One of the women raised her hand at the end of my talk and said, “But Jeanette, my kids just don’t listen unless I yell.”
I paused for a moment. I pointed at a few things I’d written on the whiteboard. I took a deep breath and thought about her kids. I felt a lump in my throat. I swallowed and said, “This all boils down to one thing. It’s what Jesus said when he summed up all the law, and all the prophets.” I paused, “Does anyone remember what he said?” You could have heard a pin drop. The moms leaned in.
I answered, “Jesus said, ‘Treat others the way you want to be treated.’” I paused again, and explained, “If the dishes need doing, or the laundry needs folding, I don’t want to be yelled at. It’s the same for our kids. If they need to get off their phone or clean their room, they don’t want to be yelled at either.”
Here’s something strange: as a yelling mom, I couldn’t see this point of view. I thought my kids deserved to be yelled at, that it was a form of discipline. I thought I was instilling respect. It wasn’t until after I broke out of the yelling bubble that I truly understood The Golden Rule. It’s a different way, a loving way, to command authority.
I’ve had literal Amazing Grace in my life, just like the line from the song: “I once… was blind but now I see.” Sometimes I wonder if my work really matters, or if the job of opening eyes is just God’s work.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. As you know, the collective mental health of our country is facing extreme pressure. In recent years many companies have begun offering mental health programs for their employees. For the sake of inspiring others, we would love to hear about five steps or initiatives that companies have taken to help improve or optimize their employees’ mental wellness. Can you please share a story or example for each?
1. Talk about stress and how to address it in healthy ways.
With emotional intelligence, the goal is to be able to identify and respond to your emotions (and the emotions of others) in healthy, helpful ways. I talk about stress as just another feeling people experience. People have a “stress response,” but our bodies also have responses to sadness, anger, fear, excitement, and other feelings. For example, you might feel a lump in your throat when you’re sad, an upset stomach when you’re scared, or tight shoulders when you’re stressed. Talking about handling stress is a simple way to ease into mental health awareness.
I’ve spoken with several organizations on this topic. For good mental health, it’s helpful to know the difference between numbing and soothing stress. For example, standing in the pantry mindlessly stuffing potato chips in your mouth? That would be numbing stress. Outside exercise or talking with a friend are examples of soothing.
2. Help employees identify red flags for mental health.
During the pandemic there have been jokes about stock-piling toilet paper, gaining the “COVID19” pounds of weight, and adopting puppies. There’s now a term for staying up late at night, “doom scrolling,” on the internet. Some people have been extreme cleaning or remodeling their houses. “Mom rage” has been trending also.
Most people know serious signs for a mental health need (such as endless crying, difficulty doing normal things, or hurting yourself or others), but a lot of people don’t know that the things we’ve been joking about during the pandemic are also red flags to reach out for mental health, a good reason to check in with a counselor.
Personally, I didn’t know you could get help for losing your temper, or for the way I used to beat myself up mentally every night, wishing I hadn’t yelled at the kids that day. Like anything, the pandemic (or an election or a natural disaster) can be a good excuse to go nuts, or a good excuse to finally get help.
A local company in Austin hired me to speak at an all-hands meeting about this topic, “Red Flags to Get Help for Mental Health.” The topic doesn’t have to be serious. You can have fun with it: “Drowning in puppies? It might be time to call on the EAP (Employee Assistance Program).” I talk about how I threw banana bread in anger, and now regularly women confess to me about things they’ve thrown, like ketchup, a cell phone, and even a block of cheese. Laughter helps ease the pressure and opens up our minds to learn.
Note: I have met therapists and pastors who did not know you could get help for losing your temper. The more we raise awareness about this particular red flag, the better.
3. Celebrate problem-solving.
At first, it feels strange to talk about problems, but when we talk about the tough stuff and how we worked through it, it creates a hopeful, problem-solving culture. I saw one organization hire an outside professional to help them settle a dispute between two groups, but after the fact, they swept the whole incident under the rug. That shows embarrassment and shame around difficulties and getting help. But what if that organization created a plaque to celebrate their accomplishment, how they addressed a problem? What if all companies had a wall where they commemorated the tough times and how they worked it out? It would create a culture where it’s ok to be human, to mess up, to get help, and grow.
The best example of this is my own personal yelling. I could have gotten help and then stayed quiet about it in my family, denying that it ever happened. But my kids bring it up from time to time. They remember when I used to lose it. It’s ok to talk about, and there’s still some healing to do. This also sets an example that you don’t have to be perfect, and it’s good to get help when you need it. By going public, it’s encouraged others to follow in my footsteps and get help.
4. Make it easy to get help.
A company wanted me to provide multiple resources for their employees, but people are overwhelmed, and they already have too many “tabs” open in their browsers, too many tasks in their lives. Give them one phone number or one person to call. That group decided to give their employees one phone number for the EAP.
5. Celebrate when your employees get help.
At a meeting I went to, at the encouragement of leadership, multiple employees spoke up about how they received help from their Employee Assistance Program (EAP) with free counseling sessions. That means those employees identified a need, reached out to get help, and finally received the help they needed. For someone in need, those three steps of identification, asking for help, and getting help, are a big deal. If you regularly share company statistics, consider including use of the EAP (keep users anonymous). It will raise awareness and keep the EAP at the forefront of people’s minds.
These ideas are wonderful, but sadly they are not yet commonplace. What strategies would you suggest to raise awareness about the importance of supporting the mental wellness of employees?
This interview is a great step, so thank you for your questions. My first career was as a news producer, and unfortunately, as a news producer, I helped generate a lot of fear, anger, and sadness. “If it bleeds, it leads,” was our unofficial motto. Years after leaving the news, I learned about a movement called “solutions-based journalism.” The best use of media is solutions-based. If you have a media outlet, use it like this to raise awareness.
In addition, companies that have taken steps for the mental well-being of employees can advertise to set an example. Do you have a counselor or emotional intelligence trainer on staff? Do you offer free counseling with your EAP? Talk about it in your recruitment package. Let’s create a workforce that expects it.
From your experience or research, what are different steps that each of us as individuals, as a community and as a society, can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling stressed, depressed, anxious and having other mental health issues? Can you explain?
As an individual in a society, if you notice that someone has a real problem and it bothers you (they may be a person in your own family, a person in your community, or even a person in the news), try to take the focus off of their problem and think about yourself for a moment. You can’t control others or force them to get help. The only person you can control is yourself, and you might need help too. Let’s start with that extreme irritation you’re feeling — do you really think that’s helping you or the person with the problem? There’s another quote from Jesus’ sermon on the mount on the topic (Matthew 7:3, NIV), “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” One example I have of this is the way I used to complain about my messed-up dad, which is ironic because we had a lot more in common than I realized.
On the other hand, if you’re looking for advice on personal interaction with a stressed individual, there are specific steps you can take. Here they are.
When someone is stressed, they’re often focused on an issue. When that happens, look below the issue to see the emotions and underlying values. Don’t engage with that person about the issue. Instead, follow these steps using a tool I call, “Connect:”
- Maintain your composure. Try yawning on purpose (yawning tells your body to calm down).
- Connect with their feelings. If you’re in their presence, notice their body language too, because their words and bodily expressions might not match up. If they’re upset, avoid eye contact to help them feel safe. Tell them, “You’re feeling ______ because _______.” Pause. Notice their reaction.
- Connect with their values. What’s important to them? What do they like? Take a moment to think about it before you say anything. Don’t focus on the “don’ts,” such as, “You don’t like it when…” Instead, affirm their values, “You care about _______.” Pause. Notice their reaction.
- If there’s a problem, often these steps will settle it. If not, address the problem using individual and group values. Aim for a win-win solution.
Here’s a simple example. A woman was complaining to me about how disorganized an event was. I felt annoyed about her complaining, and then I remembered these steps. I let go of my annoyance (I composed myself, step one) and addressed her feelings (step two), “You feel disappointed that the event was disorganized.”
She stopped for a moment and said, “Yes.” Then, she continued to complain. (This is why you go on to step three and talk about values, because you don’t want them stuck in the feeling.)
For step three I said, “You really like it when events are well organized.”
She looked me in the eye and responded, “Yes, I do,” and she stopped complaining.
By addressing her underlying emotions and values, the issue was settled.
Habits can play a huge role in mental wellness. What are the best strategies you would suggest to develop good healthy habits for optimal mental wellness that can replace any poor habits?
All of the strategies I’ve mentioned so far are helpful. In addition, making good choices for your physical body can help your mental health. In my opinion, getting a good night’s sleep is number one. That’s your body and brain’s time to rest and renew.
I did an internet search recently looking for ways to get a good night’s sleep, and found a TEDx talk by Satchin Panda called, “Health lies in healthy circadian habits.” I can’t stop thinking about it. Basically, he says there are two ways to help your circadian rhythm. First, by exposure to light. Blue light in the morning, and orange light in the evening. So get outside in the morning for blue light, and in the evening, set your screens for night mode or wear some blue-light blocking glasses. Secondly, watching the number of hours you eat each day helps your circadian rhythm. You can eat healthy foods, but if you eat for 15 hours a day, you’re not going to be healthy, and you won’t sleep well. This last bit blows my mind. If you eat healthy foods, but for 15 hours a day, it’s unhealthy! However, if you eat in the same 8–10 hour time-frame every day, it helps with the circadian rhythm, which in turn helps many things, physical and mental, according to his research. They used rats to prove this. It’s funny how rats and humans have so many things in common.
After watching the talk three weeks ago, I’ve been eating between the hours of 8:30am-6:30pm. Panda says it takes three to four months to settle into the results. I’m excited to use this simple, sustainable idea for my physical and mental health.
I grew up with a mother who constantly dieted with no success. I love that this isn’t a diet, it’s just a way of life that honors the natural rhythms in the body. The body is a system, and it’s connected to the natural systems and cycles of the earth. It makes sense to me. Creation is like a tapestry, and we’re one of the threads woven in.
Maybe I’ll write a little manual, “How to take care of a human.” It will include things like emotional intelligence and the circadian rhythm. I bet everyone reading this interview might have a chapter to add to the book.
Do you use any meditation, breathing or mind-calming practices that promote your mental wellbeing? We’d love to hear about all of them. How have they impacted your own life?
When I’m stressed, I use something I call, “The Perfect Yawn.” Yawning is nature’s way to tell your body and mind to calm down. I open my mouth and throat wide. I bring my shoulders down. I tilt my head side to side and give my whole body a wiggle and stretch. I sigh, let my belly drop, and massage my scalp. If there’s a moment when my body pauses before a deep breath, I wait for that perfect moment to complete the yawn. While reading this, some folks might feel tempted to yawn. Let’s all take a moment and go for it. (Yawn time.) Feels good, right? Kids and animals do it naturally to relieve stress. My little dog yawns and gives her whole body a shake.
Adults can yawn like this with purpose. I use it to help me calm down and think clearly, “How am I feeling, and how do I want to respond? How can I be helpful (instead of hurtful) in this moment? What is the most helpful action for me and those around me?”
I also use yawning to help spread calm. Stress is contagious, but calm is contagious too. Try yawning in a group of people sometime. See if the yawn gets passed around.
As a person who used to yell all the time, I needed a simple, everyday calming practice. The yawn was it.
Now, the yawn wasn’t the only thing that helped get my hot temper under control. I relied on professionals too, such as nutritionists, coaches, counselors, doctors, and massage therapists. Yelling was a hard habit for me to break, but it was worth it.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?
I like many books. I’m also a fan of good children’s literature. I want my children to see the world as a system, how everything and everyone is connected, and so small things matter. I’m still working on comprehending that myself. There are several kids’ books that remind me of that. I couldn’t pick just one. Stars Beneath Your Bed: The Surprising Story of Dust is about how the dust we breathe today might have been the dust that made King Tutankhamun sneeze in ancient times, so it reminds me that we are connected to other people through history. A Drop Around the World reminds me that the water in my kids’ milk might eventually be the water in a whale’s gills, so we’re all connected with the water system. When the Wolves Returned: Restoring Nature’s Balance in Yellowstone reminds me how much we still have to learn about systems, because when we killed off the keystone species, the wolf, in Yellowstone National Park, the whole park began to deteriorate. When we introduced the wolf again, it helped bring things back into balance. Everything is a system, so little things we do matter.
Learning about our inter-connectedness has impacted my daily life. I try to buy organic food, because I know that restoring America’s soil will help us, nationally and globally. I’m also learning about organic clothing for the same reasons: organic clothing is better for people and the environment. I try to look for businesses that use responsible supply chains and treat their people with dignity. One purchase at a time, each of us can shape the future.
Family life is inter-connected too. I know if I have a stressful morning with the kids, that stress is going to be passed around my community through their friends and teachers, but if I have a calm, pleasant morning with them, that will have an impact. God willing, the impact of my parenting will be passed down through the generations, as my children and grandchildren parent with kindness and connection instead of threats.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Thank you. I’m already part of the movement that I think could bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people. It’s a simple idea with profound effects: stop yelling. More than that, it’s the idea that all feelings can be felt in healthy ways. Because when you stop yelling, you’re not stopping the anger. You’re just learning how to respond to it differently. Yelling, hitting, and throwing things isn’t helpful. Taking action to make a situation more loving and safer is helpful. You know all that energy it takes to yell? Imagine what we all could do if we used that energy to do good things. It’s possible. I know, because I harness the energy of anger for good when I’m doing my work.
What is the best way our readers can further follow your work online?
They can read my blog and subscribe to my monthly email newsletter at jeanettehargreaves.com.
Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!
You’re welcome. Thank you for highlighting this important work in mental health.