One day I was working with a client who said, “You know, I have a lot of trouble keeping the stress in my head from spiraling out of control. Do you have any ideas on how to stop stress before it gets out of hand?”
Years ago I used to struggle with the same problem. I knew how to pick apart my feelings after a stressful moment, but I really didn’t have a strategy for stopping feelings of distress from escalating while in the middle of overwhelming situations. What good is knowing how to pick apart emotions later if you can’t deal with stuff while it’s happening?
Here are The Power Questions:
1. “How Important Is This, Really?”
So many times, we assign large value to events that really aren’t that important. Sometimes, we’re concerned about something that is important, just not right now.
For example, someone cuts you off in a line at the store. Yes, that was rude of them. Yes, it might make you a few minutes late. But how important is it, really? Will you remember it this afternoon? Next week? In 5 years? Will it affect the course of your life? Will it affect the weather on Jupiter? Probably not.
2. “What Is Something Positive and Constructive I Can Do About This?”
A lot of times we get stressed about things over which we have no control. Instead of getting angry, stressed out, worried, or irritated, identify the problem, stop stress and seek a positive and constructive solution. I say “positive and constructive” because yelling at someone or delivering a one-fingered salute is probably not going to help.
In our line-cutting example, what is something you can do about it? Well, you could let it go. Why get upset over someone else’s behavior? You could also set a limit: “It seems like you didn’t notice the line. Could you please go to the end? We’ve all been waiting.”
3. “What Emotions Am I Feeling?”
When we get angry, worried, fearful, etc., the emotion can seem like a huge cloud hovering over us. Identify and label them – this shrinks overwhelming emotions down in your mind’s eye to something more manageable. “I’m feeling angry because…” “I’m feeling worried because…”
Next, strap them in the “backseat” of your mind, like you would with your kids when they’re misbehaving. (You can visualize this in your head, if that’s helpful.) Don’t push those emotions away – they’ll only come back to bite you harder, later. Tell them, “You can ride along, but I’m driving – we have things to do.”
Congratulate yourself for being a human being, too – we all feel emotions, and you can tell yourself, “This is what it’s like to feel angry/irritated/worried/concerned.”
OK, so let’s apply this to our example. You would say, “I’m angry because someone just cut into the line. That’s not fair, and it’s irritating. While I’m angry and irritated, I’m also proud that I asked her to go to the end of the line without getting hostile. So let’s strap in all these emotions so I can pay for my stuff and continue my day.”
4. “What Would The Person I Want To Be Do In This Situation?”
This one requires a little prep work. Think about the person you’d like to be. Is that person kind? Strong? Responsible? Creative? Hard working? Write these traits down. Give that person a name, if you want. Your behavior should reflect the qualities of the person you want to be. When faced with a stressful situation, ask yourself what the amazing person you want to be would do. If you can’t think of a good answer, then ask yourself, “What would my hero do?”
Line cutting: I’ll bet you can answer this one. Think Superman here: “Ma’am, we’ve all been waiting. Seems like you didn’t notice the line; please go to the end. Thanks.”
5. “How Do I Want To Feel At The End Of The Day?”
This one is the easiest. Do you want to feel happy and proud that you were able to deal with the crap of the day with grace, or do you want to feel guilty and ashamed that you lost your cool? Sometimes it seems like it’s going to feel better in the moment to lose it, freak out, vent, or whatever is appealing at the time; but when you remember how you’re going to feel at the end of the day, it’s enough for you to change your mind.
Think about how you’d feel if you freaked out at the line cutter. How would you feel at the end of the day? Is that really the way you want to feel? Wouldn’t it feel better if you were proud that you either let it go because it wasn’t really important, or politely asked her to move?
The best way to learn new habits is to practice! I don’t normally get past the first two questions before I’m able to refocus. Keep at it, and most of all, have fun with it! By making a game out of learning new skills, we learn them faster and use them more frequently.