Personal note

When we feel down and out, there is often a sense of isolation from the rest of the world, as if we had been sent to a decontamination chamber or an island for people who have something incurable.

As I work with more and more clients, I am treated to a rich array of stories of situations I have encountered over and over again. We’re not only not alone in our distress, we actually are members of a pool of human beings who share the same experiences. Some have figured out how to cope all on their own; others continue to live in a kind of shadow of life, and wonder why they seem to have cruel experiences when other people do not.

Our experiences reflect our habitual ways of thinking; if we can track down and change those habits, we can change our experiences.

Today’s article is the result of a luncheon I went to a few weeks ago. Although the speaker’s topic seemed very different from mine, the same principles apply.

Threat is threat; and habits are habits. And yes, the two are related.

Is Stress a Choice?  Or a Habit?

We often say that stress isn’t just something that happens to you, it’s a choice you make about how to react to what happens to you. In a sense this is true, but it is an unconscious choice. You’re not only unaware that you’re making a choice, but even that there are any other options.

“Stress Makes You Stupid” is my rallying cry; when confronted with what your personal brain has labeled as “danger” you do what security experts have often noted is the first response when threatened: you freeze. Not just the body, but the brain freezes. With the freeze, accompanied by an urgent need to do something, you take the well-worn path that is a habit. It’s so easy.

Habits are sequences of behavior that are set up to make life easier; if you had to pause and ponder over what to do at a every little choice-point in life – Let’s see, shall I put on my pants left leg first or right leg first? Brush my teeth or bring in that cat before bedtime? – you’d never get through the day, much less accomplish anything of value.

Habits make life so easy that they start to enslave us – just like the flies in a story related by Deepak Chopra, who, when the jar lid was removed, continued to stay inside the jar.

So when the “danger” sign goes off in the brain, we set off on the well-carved path through that jungle, rather than plunge off into the underbrush in the hopes of finding something better.

Under stress, we develop those habitual coping behaviors as our path: one person may retreat, quietly, while another one blusters and becomes defensive, a third pauses to contemplate the situation with curiosity, wondering what comes next …   and so on.

We may have first performed that habitual behavior at an early age; by adulthood it has become so deeply ingrained in us that we see no other choice.

This becomes our “path through the jungle” which blinds us to other options.

A week or so ago I went to a luncheon where the speaker was a security expert who had gained much of her information about how to respond in dangerous situations from her Navy Seal husband. The information she provided involved physically threatening situations, but the wisdom I gleaned from her talk applies equally to the socially threatening situations that are the source of so much of today’s stress.

Here are some guidelines:

Plan ahead: Whether you know you are going to be confronted by someone who is abrasive to you, or you are about to enter a situation where you are going to be evaluated, have a plan that doesn’t involve your usual response (freeze, fight or flee).

Step 1: Make sure you are rested and well fed before entering the stressful situation. Habits are most powerful when will power (i.e., conscious control of your brain) is low. And that will power is very low when you are sleep-deprived, or have eaten foods that give you instant energy, followed by a let-down.

Step 2: Plan a few things to say that will delay your automatic response, such as asking questions to clarify what is really going on. Your habitual response not only includes your behavior, but your perception of the situation. What if you’re wrong?

Here are some examples of a few questions to have in mind when confronted by a situation that presses your stress buttons:

  • “How did I  …fall short of your expectations?” or “When …..? In what way(s)?”
  • “To what extent…?”  (Just like journalism class!)
  • “Why did you say that to me?”
  • “What do you mean by too quiet?”

One of my personal favorites is this: “Do you believe what you said helps me in some way?”

Use delayers: “You’ve given me a lot to think about. I’d like to get back to you for a discussion of this.”

Always take a deep breath before responding. It really slows down your automatic reaction, and, over time, helps to train your conscious brain to override those habitual impulses.

Practice: You probably have some situations in mind where you felt overwhelmed in the past. Re-enact those scenes mentally, responding differently. Then do actual practice, in privacy. Imagine what is happening, then imagine a more powerful response, one that leaves you feeling calmer and more in charge.

Review and reward: Go over stressful encounters and note if you did something, even a little something, differently from the past. Perhaps you paused and looked thoughtful, instead of becoming defensive. Hooray! Tell yourself you just did something great (you did).  Give yourself a treat.

You can’t change other people: Or can you? It’s amazing how, when you change your own behavior, other people are forced to change. People who once were confrontational may find themselves reluctant to do so, when you stand up, quietly and firmly, for yourself, but without directly attacking them.

Slow down your expectations: There is no magic wand that will turn you, overnight, into a superbly skilled manager of stressful experiences that once overwhelmed you. The danger is that you will interpret your behavior as failure, when in fact you are progressing nicely. Give yourself a chance to move towards a new, powerful, more serene life.

Remember these words of Mark Twain:
Habit is habit, and not to be flung out of the window by any man, but coaxed downstairs a step at a time.  ~Mark Twain

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