I don’t have to tell you how stressful life can be. If you didn’t feel stressed for at least part of the day today, you are fortunate indeed. But what did you do with your stress?
Maybe you’re one of those rare souls who truly strives on stress—who feels energized rather than worn down. For most of us, a little stress is okay, but ongoing stress at the level expected in modern society is a drag. It frays our nerves and tires us out. What then?
I’m asking because I hear people saying things like “Well, of course I’m irritable, I’m stressed!” The implication is that stress is a justification for being irritable—or angry, or wound up, or demanding, or constantly talking about how crazy busy you are. Feeling overwhelmed helps explain why you’re feeling irritable–but it isn’t a justification for letting that spill over onto other people.
When you snipe at the people around you, or speak sharply, or vent, or rant, or (heaven forbid) grab, hit, or shove them, you may be relieving your own stress for a moment—but you’re adding a lot of stress to the other person. Really, you’re just being self-indulgent, acting as if your impulses are more important than the other person’s need for calm, love, and respect. Anger, and its variants like irritability and annoyance, damage relationships over time.
Not all anger is bad; it’s reasonable to be angry when you’ve been mistreated. If your spouse promised to do an important task but didn’t, or if your friend told your secret, or if someone harmed you in some way, your anger is a signal that something is out of whack. Talk to the person and address your concerns directly (once you’ve calmed down).
But a lot of the anger that comes out in households stems from cruddy or overwhelming things that happened before someone got home. Your kid’s backpack left in your way may be annoying, but if it really pisses you off, that’s probably due to something that happened at work or on your commute—which is not your kid’s fault. Your anger is misplaced. An out-of-proportion response can cause your kid to fear you or get mad in return or start to avoid you, none of which makes for a happy connection.
If any of this sounds like it might be you, what can you do? Here’s what helps:
Reduce stress. Every life has some sources of stress that can’t be changed. But every life also has some things that can be made less stressful. Possible changes may be as incremental as being less hard on yourself or saying No sometimes, or as life-changing as a new career or moving to a calmer community.
What’s changeable can be hard to see sometimes. It can be very helpful to seek ideas and perspective from people who know you well and maybe from a therapist. These people can help you pinpoint which things in your life cause the most stress and what you might possibly be able to do to make them better.
Acknowledge that you’re feeling irritable. If you’ve had a horrible day and are feeling edgy or grumpy, you can say that to your partner or family rather than acting on it. You still need to watch your tone of voice and behavior, but at least people will know that your bad mood isn’t their fault.
Take control of your responses. It may not feel like it in the moment, but how we respond to situations has a lot to do with how we think about them.
For example, if someone cuts you off on the highway, you might go into a rage thinking, “That f***ing a******! He cut me off on purpose! I’ll show him what happens to someone who does that to me!!” Alternatively, in the same scenario you might think, “Well, that was an idiot move. That guy must be in a hurry; he’s driving dangerously. I’ll stay away from him.” It’s easy to see what a different effect each of those responses has; maybe you can feel the difference in your body just reading about it.
Controlling angry/irritable responses is a skill; it’s something anyone can learn to get better at. Anything that slows down your immediate reaction to a trigger is helpful: taking a deep breath (or several); counting to 10; thinking about possible reasons (other than “she did it on purpose”) for someone’s annoying behavior; noticing what’s going on in your body. These techniques let you control your anger, rather than letting it control you.
Learn what calms you. It’s up to you to figure out what helps you move beyond your irritability. Maybe a certain kind of music on your ride home? taking a couple minutes before you walk into the house to think about what you love about your partner/family? a workout? yoga? a quick bite of something healthy to boost your blood sugar? a soothing cup of tea or decaf? 10 minutes to read a magazine? a bath or shower? The possibilities are endless (just try to avoid things like alcohol that can create dependency).
Stress is inevitable in our complex world. What is avoidable is letting our stress damage our most important relationships.