Just about everyone is struggling under too much stress. Yes, states are beginning to open but our lives are still far from normal—and they feel far from normal. Many of us are not sleeping well because of the stresses. Normal routines have been disrupted. You may have gone to the gym regularly in the past, but you haven’t been able to for several months now. Your exercise program may have suffered or fallen completely by the wayside as a result. Whether you are working from home or working in a front-line job with exposure to COVID-19, you may have children at home whose schoolwork now assumes you’ll be a part-time teacher. With all of these stresses, who has the time or energy to cook a healthy meal? You may find yourself getting take-out far more than you used to. Each of these issues chip away at your emotional reserves and your self control. It leaves you vulnerable to losing your temper when perhaps you wouldn’t have at other times in the past. So what can you do to put a little buffer zone between the source of your temper and your reaction?
1. Take a long, slow, deep breath. If that seems like too much, sigh. Wait a few seconds and then do it again. Deep, slow breaths activate the part of your nervous system which acts as a brake on the fight-or-flight system. That fight-or-flight system is activated when you are feeling like you want to tear someone a new one.
2. Count. Make it more of a challenge (say, count by 14s) in order to require more of your focus on that (as opposed to the thing that has pushed you to the edge).
3. Check with yourself to make sure you heard accurately. For example, is it possible you read into the other person’s statement?
4. If you have had similar experiences in the past, think about how you handled them. What did you do, and did your response lead to a positive or negative outcome overall? If it was positive, then you have a good idea of what might help this time. If what you did worsened the situation, then you may want to try a different approach this time.
5. Visualize. How might someone you greatly admire respond? It’s probably hard to imagine them losing their cool like you want to, so what do you think they would do instead? Or perhaps you might imagine that a very young child, your child as a toddler or a grandchild, was watching you. Would your desired reaction scare them if you gave into it? Can you see their little face crumple as they start to cry? Alternately, you can ask what your best self—the person you would like to be or the person you would like other people to see you as—would do. You can also ask yourself, before you act or respond, if your response is in line with your values. If it’s not, you may well regret your actions later when your temper has cooled.
6. Reframe it. If someone said something harsh to you, can you think of possible explanations for their words? For example, you might recall that their marriage has been rocky; perhaps their spouse recently left them. This doesn’t excuse rudeness, of course. Having some ideas of other explanations to the other person’s behavior can help us to see that the behavior (or words) may not have been personal or intentional. When your child is fussy and irritable, you could think they are being unreasonable, or a brat. Or you might wonder if they are coming down with a cold, are hungry, or if they need a nap. Those possibilities can explain the behavior and give you a larger perspective which translates into a little more patience when you need it.
7. Call a time out. There’s a good chance that if you don’t respond now then later one, when you have more distance between you and the upsetting event, you will have more control over how you respond. Of course, it’s not always possible to call a time out, but when it is, this is a valid option. The time out needs to be at least 20 minutes in duration and you can’t spend that time thinking about the event. For this to work, you need to spend at least 20 minutes involved in something else that takes your mind off the upsetting situation. It takes this long for the body to calm down from the fight-or-flight response. There is one other important component: in order for this to be a viable option, you need to follow up at a later time and deal with the issue. This is not meant to be an avoidance tactic. It is best if you can give the other person some idea of when they can expect you to address the issue. You might say, “I need some time to think about this. I’ll touch base with you in 30 minutes.” Or it might be, “I don’t want to say or do anything I might regret later, so I’m going to take some time to think before I respond. I will get back with you tomorrow by 3 p.m.” And then make sure you follow through as you said you would.
8. Acknowledge to yourself how angry you are and how hard it is to not react in an inappropriate way. Talk to yourself the same way you would if it was your best friend or a younger sibling or your child who was in this situation. “This is hard. I’m so angry. I really want to let them have it. What they did was wrong and it hurts and I want them to know it!” Acknowledging your feelings to yourself will allow them to pass; suppressing them, however, will actually cause them to rebound even more strongly.
Being able to talk a therapist can also be helpful. Whether it’s a free 30-minute consultation or a full session, you can schedule an appointment by email, text, or using the online booking calendar (look for the orange “Schedule Appointment” button at the top of the screen”).