“It’s not stress that kills us, it’s our reaction to it.” ~Hans Selye
I was driving home from work, minding my own business, when a car cut in front of me.
Pretty common in Sydney traffic, right? Normally, I would just brush it off.
But not today. For some reason I couldn’t explain, that simple event set me off. I got so irritated that I pressed both my hands on the horn and started shouting at the other driver—who just gave me the finger and continued on his merry way.
That’s when I lost it. How dare he do something like this?
I was determined to get even. To teach him a lesson.
I was so immersed in rage that I almost caused an accident just to prove a point.
Not my proudest moment, I know.
Have you ever been through something like this? Something trivial suddenly escalating to a new level of crazy?
Well, the other day I witnessed my neighbor screaming from his balcony at a dude passing by, just because he had gangster rap blasting out of a speaker. Okay, I can understand that you don’t agree with his musical preferences, but is this a reason to pick a fight with a stranger?
Or, one Christmas Eve at a crowded parking lot of the local supermarket, I had a lady lash out at me for touching her car door with mine, when I was trying to hop in while holding a couple of grocery bags. I had to use all my self-control not to jump down her throat.
I guess this sort of things happen to all of us. You know, you lose your cool and end up shouting at your kids in the food court of the shopping center. Or, you snap at your partner for loading the dishwasher the “wrong way.”
It is as if we all have a Mr. Hyde waiting to come out.
But why does this happen? And most importantly, how can we control the impulse to kill someone?
The thing is that the “event” in itself is never the root cause of a rage fit. It is just the last drop on a very full cup.
For instance, the day of my road rage episode, I was going home from a day that didn’t go as planned. While driving, I was ruminating on the things that didn’t work and I was already on edge.
So, when the other driver cut me off, it just unleashed something that was already in the making. And if it wasn’t this event, it would have been something else.
I was simply stressed out and unable to be my best self.
And you know what? All of us are continually exposed to stressors. From our worries and anxieties, relationship conflicts, existential crises, and poor lifestyle choices to background noises, overstimulation, and information overload.
Which means that our cups are constantly full. And if we don’t deal with it, we’ll always be one drop away from overflow.
But is it realistic to think that you can completely eliminate stress from your life?
Heck no. This type of expectation would only create more stress. You’d be stressing about not getting stressed.
So what can we actually do to live better?
Well, you have two options: you can empty your cup on regular basis, or you can upgrade your cup size (if you work on both, even better).
Emptying your cup is what is known as stress-relief strategies. Those are the things you do on regular basis to blow off steam, like going for a jog or taking a bubble bath.
These activities help you take your mind off your problems, creating space for your body to calm down. During this time, your body shifts from “fight or flight” to “rest and digest” mode, which is necessary to replenish your energy and recover from stress.
But the key word here is REGULAR.
Because these strategies are not likely to work when you are already bursting at the seams (you know what I mean if you ever tried meditating when you had a lot in your mind).
Nope. They need to be part of your daily self-care routine. My suggestion is to create the habit of blocking off space in your calendar for a little “me time.”
I know what you’re thinking. “Are you kidding? I don’t have time for that.”
Seriously, self-care is not a luxury. It is a necessity. For your sanity, and the safety of others around you.
Now, there will be times in which you may not be able to relax even after a whole hour of deep tissue massage. Those are the times you get restless, lose sleep, and can’t function properly. That’s why you need to build a bigger cup (or a bucket) so that you’re better able to tolerate potential stressors.
Upgrading your cup simply means investing time in building mindset skills. Skills to help you manage stress, deal better with adversity, and become a problem solver. As a result, you’ll be able to take more on without going cuckoo.
It’s like developing a superpower.
How? Here’s a little framework that can help you respond more wisely to stressful situations and minimize unnecessary stress.
1. Becoming aware
Awareness means noticing (without judgment) what is going on in your mind and body. It’s learning to identify emotions and feelings, thought patterns, and responses (how you react when something happens).
This way you’ll be able to discover what sets you off and put a stop on knee-jerk reactions that you may have on autopilot.
For instance, noticing that you get irritated when you feel disrespected, which leads to an acid remark from your part. Awareness gives you the opportunity to pause and choose a better way to respond.
2. Practicing mental hygiene
Mental hygiene means going through our mental rules and deciding on what is useful and what only causes us stress.
The mind creates mental rules based on array of past experiences. The thing is that these mental rules end up defining how you’ll respond to an event in the future. That’s how we get stuck in vicious cycles.
We create rules about how things “should” be done, how people “should” act, how they “should” respond in certain situations, how the world “should” work… With so many ideas of how things should be, we end up living in defense mode, constantly fighting against everything our mind judges as “wrong.”
To move on, you’ll need to learn to let go.
For example, I made a rule in my head that said that things needed to be neat all the time after growing up with a neat father. This was totally fine while I lived on my own. But when I moved in with my partner, it became a constant source of attrition. My Mr. Hyde often came out when my partner’s behaviors went against my internal rules. So, I decided to let go of this rule in order to have a peaceful home life.
3. Rewriting the rules
The truth is that all beliefs serve a purpose. They are the code of conduct that guides our behaviors. So when we decide to get rid of a rule, we need to make sure that the unconscious need behind is being met in another way.
For instance, to be able to let go of the rule I mentioned above, I had to ask myself why it was so important to have things organized. With a little bit of soul searching, I came to realize that when my environment was neat and orderly, I could process thoughts and emotions more efficiently, which meant that I felt more in control of my life. This helped me put things into perspective and develop new guidelines.
Now, I allow myself to make things neat, but I don’t obsess about it anymore. That means that I don’t get upset when my husband leaves a dirty sock here and there. I just remind myself that having a peaceful environment is more important. And I developed other ways to feel in control of my mind and body like adopting a meditation practice and building an exercise routine.
So now I ask you, how full is your cup? And most importantly, what can you do to prevent spillage?
If this’s all very new to you, you could start by creating a self-care routine that helps you empty your cup on regular basis. And if you already have one, then work on upgrading your cup. This way you’ll be less likely to explode over little things.
Oh, and don’t get put off if you have slip-ups. Keep in mind that stress management is a skill that gets better (and easier) with practice.