Recently, I found myself in the center of a horrifying situation. On an evening walk, my dog, Stanley, heard his friend Gracie, the comely chocolate Lab, and violently tugged his leash in her direction. The leash broke, and he took off, me following. When I caught up, he was running alongside a man riding his bike who — with good reason — was not happy.
“Can’t you control your stupid dog?” he yelled as Stan loped alongside. Without thinking, out of breath and crazy angry with Stanley, I screamed back an expletive I generally use on U.S. 41 when I’m alone in the car. He also knew that expletive and replied in kind.
By this time, my neighbor along with Gracie had Stanley in tow. The bicyclist returned to the scene of the scream. I apologized profusely, exhibiting the broken leash and assuring him that Stanley, now acting like the perfect pet, would never have bitten him. He rode off, shaking his head.
Returning home, I sank into a chair and weeped, feeling totally out of control. “I’m not the kind of person who screams at a stranger like that,” I moaned to Gretchen White, a licensed social worker and good friend, the next day. “I am mortified that I behaved that way.”
White explained that most of us are teetering on a stress continuum that’s like a rubber band. It gets stretched and then slackens from day to day, moment to moment. And sometimes it just snaps.
Because I’ve already disclosed too much personal information, I won’t reveal my age. However, I cannot remember ever feeling quite so many unruly emotions in response to events and situations that are totally out of the ordinary person’s control since, well, climbing under my desk during the Cuban missile crisis.
Fear, anger and sorrow over the ever-changing pandemic landscape, international chaos, internal disarray, relationships in jeopardy over the aforementioned. It often seems just too much. And that umbrella of unpredictatables generates another layer of decision-making that increases stress: Should we meet in person, work at home, go to a restaurant, wear a mask at the grocery store, etc.?
Day to day, we are greeted by more information that stretches our rubber bands even tighter.
In attempting to get a handle on how to navigate through these muddy times, research led me repeatedly to the approach of acceptance.
It’s hardly new. The first line in the serenity prayer used by millions reads: “Accept the things I cannot change.”
Now, as a therapeutic approach, it’s called acceptance and commitment therapy. According to PostivePsychology.com, acceptance and commitment therapy encourages people to embrace their thoughts and feelings rather than fighting or feeling guilty for them. In other words, accept that you are stressed. The article states that we have an instinct to control our experiences, but this instinct does not always serve us.
Acceptance is an active choice to allow unpleasant experiences to exist, without trying to deny or change them.
Putting this in practice can be easier said than done, though there are some simple hacks that can get you on your way.
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When you’re feeling ready to snap instead of accept, remember to breathe. Looking back at the dog and bicycle experience, it would have been so much better in every way if I would have taken a deep breath instead of launching an obscenity.
Not only will a deep breath or two keep you from having to face the “What was I thinking?” reflection, but it will also release endorphins, those feel-good hormones.
Taking that deep breath will also let your mind catch up and allow you to make a choice in your reaction. You can act rather than react.
Start with the small things.
BestSelf.com recommends making a mental stress log, or better yet a written stress log. That gets things out of your head, clearing up space for more enriching thoughts. Plus, writing things down inspires action.
Taking one thing on your list, say, pulling the weeds that are spoiling the joy of your garden, relieves overall stress. You won’t be solving the chaos of thousands of Haitians taking refuge under an overpass in Texas, but you will be taking a small action.
Taking stressors off your list is practicing commitment rather than avoidance.
The cyclist had the right idea.
Finally, getting enough sleep and exercise is key to keeping our stress manageable. If we’re over-caffeinated because we’re under-charged, our tendency is to overreact. And exercise, releasing endorphins and muscle tension incites a positive mental attitude that makes space for acceptance. “It is what it is” becomes a mindset rather than a cliche.
Kristine Nickel is a marketing communications consultant and former marketing and public relations executive. For more than 30 years, she has relieved her stress by writing features for publications across the country.
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