Have you been homebound these past months with unhappy teenagers, a difficult spouse or a couple of cranky-in-laws? Instead of using coping strategies, these people wallow in negativity, blame you for their problems or snap at you when all you need is a hug.
With the combined stress of Covid and a holiday season spent in relative captivity, life is hard for a lot of people. The stress is enough to turn any one of us into an anxiety-fueled fighter pilot looking for a target.
In my case, my otherwise typical teenager has been understandably angry. She can’t see her friends, she can’t get her license, she can’t use the new roller skates she got for Christmas since all the rinks are closed. And that’s just the start to her list of well-founded grievances.
As a life coach and yoga teacher, I’ve given her every tool to mitigate stress I know. But at this point, I’m the last person she wants advice from, well maybe second to last. So any suggestion I make results in blame and accusation. In fact, any word I utter tends to get a similar reaction.
This lashing out is a response I’ve come to recognize as driven by chronic stress. Maybe you have a similar family member casting a shadow on every interaction with you. It feels hurtful and unfair. After all, aren’t we all dealing with some version of the same thing?!
The answer is, not really. In order to understand why stress levels among people in similar situations are so different, this article from National Center for Biotechnology Information will help:
A “stressor” is any stimulus or event that evokes a state of “stress” or “anxiety.” A stressor may be a physical or psychological threat to safety, status, or well-being; physical or psychological demands that exceed available resources; an unpredictable change in environment; or an inconsistency between expectations and outcomes.7,19,20 Whether the stressor is pain or non-pain related (eg, work overload, financial troubles, social embarrassment), the perception of uncontrollable or unpredictable environmental demands that exceed coping resources is likely to evoke a physiologic stress response, manifesting as a feeling of uneasiness or impending doom, rumination or worry, and avoidance of stress-provoking stimuli.1,2,7,20
However, the perception of environmental stimuli as threatening or frightening varies by individual; therefore, the same fear-based stressor that evokes a stress response in one individual may be innocuous to another. Fear of the worst possible outcome (eg, unemployment, bankruptcy) activates this response.
The bottom line is, chronic stress and repeated surges of cortisol can result in cortisol dysfunction. No amount of talk therapy or reasoning can work until those cortisol levels are reduced enough let the anxiety settle down.
In a perfect world, I’d be able to convince my daughter to manage her stress level with a solid sleep routine, deep breathing practices and exercise. These are all proven interventions that are also free and not that hard to do.
In a world not so perfect, this a good time to focus on taking care of yourself. Prioritizing sleep, a daily stress reduction practice and regular exercise routine are not surprisingly top of list. Yet how can you protect yourself from the slew of emotions, often directed at you, which feel so toxic?
- Put on your mask first. Make sure you’re taking care of yourself with stress management practices like 20 minutes of deep breathing or meditation each morning, a good night’s sleep and regular exercise so you’re able to manage your response and walk a way when you need to.
- Don’t add fuel to the fire. If you’re feeling attacked or triggered, do a fast-acting breathing practice if it helps you to respond calmly. The key is to keep your voice neutral in pitch and speak at a normal pace even if the other person is screaming.
- Ask before you tell. Ask them what they need, and listen. Rather than tell them to calm down, or take a deep breath, recognize their state first. For example; “I hear you’re upset, but can you slow down and tell me how I can help?” Sometimes people just need to be heard. If the conversation turns to blame or heightened emotions, request setting a time when they can speak to you respectfully and without accusations.
- Set boundaries. Leave the scene if you need to and let the other person know you’ll be back when they can connect from a place of calm. Until then, keep conversations as neutral as possible.
- Let go of resentment. If the person is in a state of chronic anxiety, their behavior isn’t entirely within their control, so as hard as it is, tap into empathy and answer with love. If this is different from your typical response pattern with this person, let them know you need to take care of yourself and your own stress levels during this time. It’s hard for all of us!
- Forgive yourself. You may feel responsible for your teen’s depression or your spouses financial stress. If only you’d parented differently or saved more money. This may feel like taking responsibility for your actions, the mature thing to do. But holding on to blame creates shame, or anger directed inward. This triggered state limits your ability to think creatively and to objectively assess your options by activating your stress response. Tara Brach’s work on self compassion is a great resource.
- Find support in connection. Even in social isolation we can use the phone or Zoom to connect with friends who will listen and understand. If you’re able to get out for a socially distant walk with a friend even better.
2020 has been a long hard year to say the least. The most important thing any of us can do right now is show compassion, both to ourselves and to others. As studies show, our bodies handle stress in different ways, and for some the go-to is toxicity.
As mercilessly as these challenges can stretch us, learning to deal with difficult people will always serve you. It all starts with self-care. Make 2021 your year for change. Talk with me today to learn more about my new midlife transformation coaching programs and how to change your life at any age!