Americans’ levels of stress are among the highest in the world. Our national ethic of incessant striving with no measureable way to say, “I’m at the peak”, strains our bodies, hearts and minds. Our media reinforces constant dissatisfaction, a necessity in a consumer based economy. While there are worlds written about it, here are the four major ways that I have gleaned from most of the material out there over the years I have been reading about it. Feel free to let me know if any of this has worked for you or enlighten us on other ways you’ve come down from being stuck on a red alert button.
Otherwise known as “perceptions” or “assumptions”, anytime our minds speak to us in absolutes, our blood pressure is going to rise. For this post, we’ll take one of the most common irritants, phone trees. Today I spent 20 minutes with one vendor without result to try to get medication I needed and 30 minutes with another vendor trying to refuse a product I didn’t need that they were going to ship without my permission. I had grandchildren watching me, always a safeguard on my language.
When I feel the rage rising, I realize the Serenity Prayer is my best bet because it immediately sets a path for me. “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
My frustration and anger most often come from wanting to be able to change something I can’t. I cannot remove the phone tree system. I can choose when I call. I know it is going to take some mental and emotional preparation for me and some free time to get involved with any type of transaction based on this system. It doesn’t matter that what I needed to be handled could have been done in 5-10 minutes formerly by calling a person directly, that is no longer available to me. Broad charges fly through my mind: corporate arrogance, insufficiently trained customer service persons, non-native English speakers: I can go on. But my insecurities are not doing me any favors. My perception can be changed easily. I can interpret this obstacle as a threat to my consumer power or I can accept that I will not lose out because of this system. I will find a way in spite of this inefficiency.
Another of my favorite times to practice this is behind a slow driver. I can get dangerous, speeding up and veering sharply around them, or I can breathe, be grateful that I will not get a speeding ticket, and turn my mind to more pleasant things while I wait. I am the winner when I choose my perceptions.
2. Relaxation/Meditation – The Potent Pause
The hectic pace we keep is destructive but we are somewhat at a loss of how to slow it down. The first item, perceptions, or unconscious messages, are behind this feeling. If we dont’ give ourselves permission to not people please, we will be dancing to everyone else’s tune. Then our resentment builds and we are back in rageland. When we feel that pressure rising, let it be the signal to step back mentally, pause, and breathe. We may even have to excuse ourselves and find a quiet place (bathroom?) to douse our face in cool water, close our eyes, and breathe, picturing an emotionally nurturing scene. By allowing the feeling of stress to be our stimulus to relax, we turn a detrimental energy into a positive one. As I am waiting through the third representative, who I know will ask me for the same information for the third time, I use this time as a signal to pause, relax, and breathe.
After we become aware that our stress is energy in our bodies, we can realize how important it is to discharge it in a healthy way. I once gave a stress reduction workshop to a security monitoring company. I demonstrated to the men (no women in this office) the clench-release-shake pattern of releasing energy. Clench the fist – release it – shake it out. When one man opened his hand, his nails had drawn blood in his palm from the level of tension he was holding. He was literally crucifying his hand with job stress.
Walking is easiest on the joints and can usually be done on the grounds of a business place. Outside is best but even in halls gets us discharging the energy. Enlightened businesses are installing exercise rooms along with time to use them. But you as an enlightened person who cares about your health can discharge the energy by walking on your lunch hour. Often you must set the boundaries about taking time away from your work to release the toxic energy that has built up. Water against the skin is soothing if you can get to a pool. Other more strenuous forms are available. Are you someone who wants to be alone or enjoys a group? Softball leagues may help if you need group support or a walking buddy.
I can walk around the room while I am on hold during my call. I can swing my arms, practice breathing, or stretch. All help me not hold my frustration energy in my body.
4. Assertive Communication
The internal version of No. 1 is self talk. We may not be aware of what happens when stress builds, but the two reactions are fight or flight. Fight involves aggressive talk, cursing at the phone or throwing things around the room as we project our problems outside of ourselves, not willing to accept what we can’t change. This step involves flight, a flight inward as we see the obstacles outside of ourselves as evidence of our low self worth, efficacy, or other diminished capacity. These are our assumptions, perceptions, turned inward, resulting in passive communication. Or passive aggression, sniping, or other ways of never being authentic because of fear. Some of us may not have been allowed to even find out what we thought or felt as we grew up. We may have been around those who insisted we make them happy or blamed us for whatever was going on.
It takes practice to learn that there is a third option between being silent or exploding: assertively stating our needs without creating defensiveness in the other person. The pattern of stating the data, what is observable, explaining how we see it or feel it, and reaffirming what we want or what we intend to do, is the middle road of wisdom. It is the communication version of the Serenity Prayer. It states what we can’t change, helps us get the courage to change, and helps us know the difference.
For example, in my phone call, the final representative comes on the line. I need her to send me a few pills from my prescription because I have not received the mail order. This requires what is called an “override”. When she calls the pharmacy, they say they cannot honor the override. That I will have to contact the insurance company, which puts me back to the beginning of the cycle. I drive to the pharmacy for a solution conversation. I could either not try to get the medication or I could curse, yell and threaten the pharmacy tech. Neither one will be satisfying. Instead I can calmly repeat the steps I have taken, explain that it is a cycle, and that I intend for one of the parties to do what is necessary to get me my medication, since I have followed their guidelines. I got my medicine.
The level of relationship or “stakes” often tells us how we want to communicate. But if we value the relationship or need a positive outcome, assertive communication is the way to go. By not holding on silently, our stress is not held in. By not exploding, our stress is not intensified. By assertively explaining ourselves, the energy is released and we have honored and advocated for our needs. If a partner comes home, storms past you, slams the door, and doesn’t come out for an hour, a passive person will stew but not say anything. An aggressive communicator will pound on the door yelling for them to come out and talk to them. An assertive person will find a good time to talk, say to the person “When you come home and go quickly to your room and close the door without saying anything to me,(observable data that cannot be argued) I don’t know what is wrong.(how it affects me) I care about you and want to know if I can help. (statement of intention) What’s going on?” (asking for clarifying information).
Fear creates stress. Not facing a situation for fear of making it worse makes stress worse. Escalating with aggressive words makes the stress worse. Using assertive communication releases our energy and allows the other person to respond without attacking defensively.
- Clarify your perceptions and assumptions. 2. Take time to relax and meditate. 3.Discharge the energy through exercise. and 4. Express your needs with assertive communication.