Choosing How to React in Moments of Stress

Sometimes things get off track. Things can come up in life that take your out of your normal routine. Sometimes the unexpected is a welcome change when things feel stale or boring, but sometimes it feels like an intrusion and it’s easy to react rashly and negatively.

Jen Boyle, Guest Blogger, WILL Community

I had that experience a few weeks back when an unexpected project came up at work. I was tasked with new responsibilities, had extra early-morning meetings every day, and was involved in a whole new project that was on top of my regular duties. At first, I was taken by surprise, having to switch mental gears very quickly to try to understand what the new project was, what my role was, and what I was supposed to do. That was challenging. Things were moving quickly and I had to keep up. There were a lot of smart people working on this project and it was a privilege to be asked to join the team, but it was also a lot of pressure. The stakes were high. The timeline was short. There was a lot to lose by not performing.

This led me to reflect on how we react to the unexpected.

In this case, I knew it was a short term project, so there was an end date when things would go back to normal. However, while in the thick of things, the days were long. My body was tired. My back hurt. I was mentally stretched to the max.

I fell behind on my regular work and felt like I was ignoring people, including members of my own team. I had many moments of feeling overwhelmed and stressed. My brain was in overdrive: I don’t know what I’m doing. Am I performing well enough? Am I contributing enough to the team? Am I keeping up with the rest of these talented people? Is my other team mad at me for being so busy? I’m letting people down.

Everyone experiences these types of thoughts from time to time, and they are usually worse when the pressure level ratchets up. So, is there any way to control our reactions to the unexpected so we can cope better?

I don’t know about you, but my instincts range from immediately jumping into action (and potentially overreacting) to being so paralyzed with information that I freeze. However, there is a middle ground.

I found it helpful in this case to look at the unexpected request as a challenge (after getting over the initial paralysis). This new project was a way to stretch my own skills. It was a way to work a little harder than I was currently working. To some degree, it was a welcome wake-up call that pushed me out of my comfortable groove. But that’s not how it felt at first.

I’ve found that coping is a process and there is no right or wrong way to react. There are, however, small things we can do to help us through the process:

  • First, breathe.Take a few deep breaths. Gather your thoughts so you don’t react out of emotion.
  • Second, observe.Observe what is happening to you right now. How is your body/mind responding to the unexpected? Do you feel a knot in your stomach? Did your heart rate increase? Does your head feel like it’s going to explode? Try to observe what is happening without the need for action or resolution.
  • Third, choose.Consider your options of how you could respond and take a moment to choose how you would ideally like to respond. Do I need to answer right now? Can I ask for some time to think and respond later? Do I need to weigh the pros and cons? Choose what would serve you best.

Perhaps the easiest way to take from this experience is to remember a simple phrase that will help you in moments where you are overwhelmed: Go to the balcony. This phrase is commonly used in conflict resolution and means to figuratively (and sometimes literally) step out for a minute to get yourself together before you react. Step onto that proverbial balcony for some fresh air. The balcony is a neutral space where you can detach from the intensity of the moment. Stretch. Close your eyes. Breathe. Do a few downward dogs, or whatever you need to do to get yourself into a new head space.

Sometimes we think we have to keep pushing through and to take a break means weakness, but in my experience, quite the opposite is true. When you are fully aware, you can act from intention, not emotion. When you take a moment to settle internally, you then can find the inner energy and resources to allow you to give your best to others.

In the end, everything worked out well on the project and the team pulled together to meet the deadline successfully. I wouldn’t have guessed at the beginning that it would be such a rush and a great experience overall. Now that it’s done, I have another life experience I can put in my back pocket for next time something unexpected comes up.

Surely you have dealt with challenges before and gotten through (at least some of) them successfully too. Consider this proof that you have what it takes to tackle anything that comes your way.

Jen Boyle, WILL Community Member and Guest Blogger


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