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Don't freak out! 3 tips to calming your response to stress

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Maria’s day didn’t start well. Her kids dawdled so much getting ready for school that she felt exactly like she was chirping Anita Renfroe’s “Mom Song”

Get up now
Get up now
Get up out of bed
Wash your face
Brush your teeth
Comb your sleepy head
Here’s your clothes
And your shoes
Hear the words I said
Get up now
Get up and make your bed

She herded them all into the car but, at a stoplight, had to turn around to tell her son to stop pinching his sister, who was wailing at the top of her lungs. Her quick movement, however, caused her to knock over her coffee in the cup holder and it slopped onto her light-colored slacks. There was no time to go back and change her clothes so she gritted her teeth and resigned herself to showing up to the meeting at work with stains on her pants.

Maria freaks out

Kids dropped off, she arrived at work to find that there was someone from tech support in her office working on her computer. He mumbled something about a “network upgrade glitch.” Maria’s meeting was in thirty minutes and she needed to get onto her computer, download the agenda, and review her part of the data security report so she wouldn’t sound like a complete idiot when it was her turn to present.

“How much longer do you think this will take?” she asked the tech.

“I’m not sure,” he responded, “I think about an hour.”

“An hour!” Maria’s voice rose. “I don’t HAVE an hour! I have a very important meeting in thirty minutes!” She was shouting now as she threw her purse and coat on a chair. “I have GOT to get on that computer! Why did you have to work on it now? You are totally incompetent!”

The tech turned from her computer and looked at her. Maria could see the embarrassment and hurt in his eyes. She turned to leave and get away from this horrible situation, but someone was blocking her door. It was her boss.

Maria needed these 3 tips

Poor Maria. What happened to her? As the events of the morning unfolded, her brain, specifically her amygdala, became triggered and perceived that she was in danger, a fight-or-flight situation. Unfortunately, Maria chose to “fight” and lost her temper . . . right in front of her boss.

What could she have done to convince her brain she wasn’t in “danger” and didn’t need to fight?

1. Be aware. Maria needs to increase her recognition of signs in her body that she is starting to feel stressed. If she had been more aware, she may have noticed that she felt a tense knot forming in her stomach as she rushed the kids out to the car. When she was driving after spilling coffee on her pants, she could have noticed that her shoulders were up around her ears as the tension built up. And she might have recognized that she was about to start shouting at the tech as the anxiety moved its way from her stomach, up through her chest, and toward her mouth. What happens to your body when you become stressed?

2. Breathe. If Maria had taken even five seconds that morning to stop and take a deep breath, much of the fallout from her stressful morning would not have occurred. Would she still feel stressed? Yes, but not to the extent that she ends up shouting and throwing things. The act of stopping and taking a deep breath not only signals Maria’s brain that she is okay, but it also gives her a break that allows her to think more about what is going on in her body and mind.

3. Think. When Maria noticed that she was becoming uptight, she could have stopped to take a deep breath. During that pause, she may have thought to herself, “This is stressful, but it’s not like this hasn’t happened before. I’ll be okay. I’m safe, I’m just stressed. It’s not the end of the world.” This kind of thinking also calms her brain and assures her amygdala that Maria is not in a situation where she may need to fight or run.

Takeaway points: When facing stress, remember that your brain has a very primitive center that still thinks you may be in danger. Calm your amygdala and decrease your stress by practicing becoming aware of what your body feels like when it is stressed. The next time you notice the signals in your body, stop and take a deep breath. During the time out when you are taking your breath, think about what is going on and reassure yourself and your brain that you will be okay, you have faced stress before, and it’s not the end of the world.

What do you do when you’re having a “Maria day”?

If you liked this article, you may also like this post from Upaya.org.


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Bobbi Emel is a therapist who helps people in Los Altos, Palo Alto, Mountain View and the greater Bay Area manage their stress and develop their strengths.
She is effective in helping people dealing with anxiety, worry and grief; and also those who want to improve their effectiveness and performance.