Certain things have built-in warning signs when they need attention: a car has a check engine light; a tea kettle has a whistle. Wouldn’t it be great if people had the same type of warning signals when they went into stress mode? That would let everyone know when someone’s stress response had been triggered, and even perhaps bring greater awareness to the person who was stressed.
Unfortunately, it is much harder to gauge when stress creeps in and adds tension to everyday situations. Stress changes our ability to behave rationally. It also makes it harder to access our creativity, be expansive, think strategically, and be empathetic with others. The stress reaction tricks our brains into thinking we are in danger, and all of our energy gets diverted to focusing on our own survival, which makes it very difficult to see the bigger picture and other people.
This way of thinking is called the lizard brain. Sometimes it is apparent to others when we switch to our lizard brains, and other times it is not. For example, you can see it when someone is shouting or overreacting about something that is important but certainly not life threatening. People can interpret this behavior as stress… or a sign that someone is a jerk. If there was a red light indicator, it would be easier to tell the difference.
Unfortunately, identifying stress isn’t just difficult in others. It’s hard to tell when we have gone there ourselves. We consider ourselves rational beings, so it never occurs to us that we are being irrational. In this stress-out state, we are primed and ready to make poor decisions and chip away at quality relationships without even knowing it.
So, since there will never be a light that flashes above our heads to signal the alert that we have moved into stress mode, what can we do?
It starts with strengthening awareness.
Pay attention to your body. Everyone experiences various signals when under stress, and it’s important to recognize the changes. Do your hands sweat when you are nervous? Does your stomach tighten up? (Personally, I get a strange hot sensation in the same place on my right shoulder blade when my stress and anxiety are building.) When you pay attention to these kinds of signals you can intervene on your negative emotional track and bring yourself back into the safety zone where you can harness your energy, and use your best thinking.
Some ways to do this are:
1. Control your breathing (practice with exercises)
2. Move (gentle stretching exercises)
3. Laugh (trying to not take things so serious)
4. Use the RAIN technique:
- Recognize what is going on;
- Allow the experience to be there, just as it is;
- Investigate with kindness;
- Natural awareness, which comes from not identifying with the experience.
5. Or STOP:
- Take a few deep breaths;
When you see that others have gone into this mode, you can encourage them to take a break, bring some humor to the situation, or try and shift the energy in the room. (Sometimes changing your energy and breathing patterns can change the energy for others.)
The goal is not to be perfect; it is to start creating awareness for yourself and others so you can be more compassionate in your interactions and a little clearer in your thinking.