We cannot control what happens to us, but we can control how we react to it. Stress is often multiplied by internal dialogue, self-blame and vivid imagination, painting detailed pictures of what can go wrong.
Events are neutral — they happen. It is the way we perceive them and react to them that becomes our reality. If you are stuck in traffic on the way to work and are running late, it’s just that — you will be there later than anticipated. You could accept it as a given and resolve to leave the house earlier to avoid this situation in the future. Or, instead, you can sit in the car seething at the red lights and the drivers in front of you, all the while imagining how angry your boss is going to be, how you will certainly get fired, which will force you to sell your car and have to resort to begging on the street for a piece of bread.
Chances are, when you arrive, at most you shall receive a reprimand. More likely, no one is going to care what time you came in. Yet your brain will have you believe that you have lived the frightening reality of being left without a job. That will set the stage for the rest of your day.
These stressful responses to everyday situations accumulate and taint your ability to be calm, reasonable, productive, and happy. When you are faced with a less-than-optimal arrangement (and we all go through plenty of those on a regular basis), take a deep breath, identify what upsets you and choose to react to it in a constructive way. If you are stuck in traffic, you can listen to music, sing, think of pleasant plans in the near future, or plan your next errand. If you are stuck in the car with kids, you can play a word game, sing, recite short poems, look for red cars around you, count trees or houses, or find another way to use this time for bonding.
Control your exposure to other people’s negative thoughts and emotions — layered on top of your own, at a stressful time, they are likely to overwhelm your ability to effectively mitigate stress and can lead to sleep disturbances, interfere with effective functioning of your digestive and immune systems, slow down your mental responses and land you into more stress than before. Plainly put, you will get more sad and sick if people surrounding you are sad and sick. And when we are sick, we are no help to anyone until we take care of ourselves.
Choose not to attend events or meet with people that you know will trigger a strong stress response. This does not mean avoiding friends that are having a hard time. It means knowing when you can be a helpful listener and when you cannot. If you have overwhelming levels of stress in your life, you will only mirror your friend’s negative emotions by getting more frantic, upset, angry, or depressed yourself. All of that will get projected back at your friend, growing the negativity as a snowball that can engulf both of you.
You can still help by providing a meal, helping out with kids, or doing something that will be of assistance to your distressed friend, but will not involve a lot of interaction. In many situations, it is the chores and responsibilities that aggravate the stress and get in the way of recovery, so taking on some of those responsibilities is a good way to help. Other people can lend your friend a shoulder to cry on — it does take a village to help. On your part, while you are making a meal, doing laundry, washing dishes, or helping your friend with some other chore, your mind can detach from the immediacy of your own stressful reality.
For those of us with strong empathic nature, the intensity of any negative emotion is reflected and multiplied. We take on other people’s emotions and feel them as our own, so we collect even more negativity (and positivity as well) from around us and integrate it into our lives. We end up living our own stresses manifold.
To limit your exposure to negativity, control your atmosphere, including the music you listen to, the films you watch, the people with whom you interact, the news you watch, and the newspapers, magazines, and books you read. You know what triggers you — do not expose yourself to it unnecessarily. There are external stimuli aplenty to keep you on your toes.
If you feel that your negative emotions have reached overwhelming levels, step back, assess the situation and get some rest. Switch the activities in which you engage: garden, instead of watching TV; do a puzzle or play a board game, instead of reading a newspaper; go to a park with kids for some fresh air and free play, instead of browsing Facebook and soaking up other people’s frustrations. Remove irritants from your environment, be that light or noise pollution, frequent interruptions, or furniture getting in the way. Step outside, take a deep breath, get a massage, meditate, listen to some calming music, play an instrument, play with a pet — find something that takes your mind off the stress, and the solutions to your challenges might just come to you, once you are rested.