The Best Way to Defuse Your Stress

The Best Way to Defuse Your Stress

The Best Way to Defuse Your Stress

I knew that I probably shouldn’t send the email I had just written. I wrote it in anger and frustration, and we all know that sending an email written in anger and frustration is, well, dumb.

Still, I really wanted to send it. So I forwarded it to a friend, who knew the situation, with the subject line: Should I send this?

She responded almost immediately: Don’t send it tonight. If you feel like you need to send it tonight, then I think it is for the wrong reasons. Make sense?

Yep, I responded. Thanks.

Three minutes later I sent it and bcc’d her.

She was flabbergasted: You changed your mind that fast?!?!?

Nope, I responded. My mind is in total agreement with you. But my mind didn’t send the email, my emotions did. And they feel so much better!

Most of the time, I’m professional, focused, empathetic, thoughtful, and rational. But that takes effort and, periodically, I lose that control. I might write an inappropriately aggressive email. Or raise my voice at my kids when they don’t listen. Or lose my temper with a customer service rep on the phone who seems to be missing my point.

It might look like I have an anger problem, but I don’t. I have a stress problem. I can be tightly wound. And, as a result, quick to anger.

In those moments when my stress erupts, my rational mind doesn’t stand a chance. It’s like trying to use intellectual arguments to talk down a stampeding bull.

Reason and stress speak different languages. Reason is intellectual; stress is physical. Reason favors words; stress prefers action. Our minds can advise us all they want, but our bodies have the upper hand. In fact, the more our minds try to curtail our stress, the more volatile it becomes.

If you pause to feel your stress, you will recognize it, quite literally, as energy flowing in your body. We live with that energy all the time, and, typically, it’s useful — it keeps us fresh, on our toes, and ready for action.

But, periodically — and I would argue increasingly — our stress levels rise well beyond useful. And, when that happens, we can easily lose control of our actions.

Think of stress as a monster, who lives in your body and feeds on uncertainty. The monster’s most satisfying meal starts with the sentence: “What will happen if…?”

What will happen if that presentation fails? What will happen if one of the projects I’m working on runs into objections? What will happen if I don’t have enough time to finish my budget? What will happen if my explanation doesn’t satisfy investors? What will happen if the company doesn’t get its financing?

As the uncertainty grows, so does the monster. Eventually, the pressure to escape the confines of your body proves too great. At that moment, you open your email, read something that annoys you and BOOM!

Here’s the interesting thing: after the explosion, we relax. Sending that angry email felt great. The monster escaped.

But not without consequences: The reaction of the person who received my angry email? That’s another story.

The question we need to answer is: How can I release the pressure without doing damage in the process?

Many of us try to manage or ignore our stress. We attempt to push it down, put it aside, breathe through it, or rise above it. But that’s a mistake. All those responses only encourage the monster to grow unfettered and, usually, unnoticed. Eventually, without fully understanding why, we get sick or explode or burn out.

There’s a better solution: Don’t try to manage your stress. Instead, dance with it.

The monster wants out? Let it out. But do so on your terms. You may need to cope for a moment, just until you can get to a place where you have privacy. Then, when you know there will be no adverse consequences, let the monster have you. Free yourself to kick and scream and punch. Feel what it’s like to completely lose control.

Recently I was having a hard time keeping it all together while I was in the car with my three children, whom I love to no end and who are also amazingly skilled at pushing my buttons. I held it together long enough to drop them off at our apartment. Then, when I was alone in the car, I let the monster take over. I yelled and cursed and screamed and hit the steering wheel over and over again.

It wasn’t pretty. Anyone looking at me through the window would have thought I was crazy. But by the time I returned to the apartment, I felt completely rejuvenated. And, most importantly, I was able to be a good parent.

I’ve yelled into the woods, repeatedly slammed my fists into my mattress, and jumped up and down stomping on the ground like an infuriated five year old. In places where people might be nearby, like office spaces, airplanes, or hotels, I’ve gone to the bathroom to have quieter hissy fits, jumping up and down and shaking without letting my voice rise too high.

If you really can’t get any privacy, then, instead of email, open your word processing program and write everything you’d like to say in that angry email. Let yourself go, punching the keys hard as you type, using all the pissy language you’d like to. Let the monster roam free.

Then delete the file, straighten your clothing, and be professional.

Stress is, ultimately, about trying to control that which you can’t. So trying to control your stress is one more thing that increases your stress. Physically releasing the stress on your terms helps. The point is to create an intentional and safe doorway for the stress to escape before it explodes.

It wasn’t long before I received a response from the person to whom I had sent my angry email, and she was clearly annoyed. I had flexed my muscles and she flexed hers back. This time, though, I was prepared. I went into another room, where I was alone, and shouted and jumped and punched into the air. After a few short moments, I felt powerful and balanced. Then I did what I should have done in the first place: I picked up the phone, called her, and had a reasonable conversation.

Originally published at Harvard Business Review.


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  • Lowell Nerenberg February 25, 2014 Reply

    Peter, I totally get you and how your experience of being over stressed seriously affects you physically and emotionally. And there is another solution you may want to look into and try. In fact, I use it frequently when I come up against the monster, and what’s more, it is useful for other far more challenging emotions and even physical pain. In fact, it is being used effectively with war veterans suffering with PTSD. It is a self-care technique which you can learn on your own in minutes, simply by reading about it and trying it. Full disclosure: my wife is a certified practitioner in this technique.

    It’s called Emotional Freedom Techniques, often referred to as EFT or meridian tapping or just plain tapping. Essentially it involves talking to yourself about the issue at hand while you simultaneously use your fingertips to tap on a series of up to 10 standard acupressure meridian points on your face and upper body. You probably want to do it in private, because it looks funny. Learn more at eftuniverse.com or my wife’s site at WellnessAtYourFingertips.com.

  • Leesa Kellam February 25, 2014 Reply

    There is a school of thought that says that kind of violent remedy is a rehearsal for your mind to to the real thing in the future. Do you have any studies on the veracity of your approach?

  • Steve Swavely, Ph.D. February 25, 2014 Reply

    Peter – Great article. I’d propose that you don’t have a stress problem, you have a fear problem. The core emotion driving these actions in you (as well as me and everyone else) is of course, fear – fear of failure, fear of rejection. And behind that fear are beliefs – beliefs about yourself and who you are as a person, which are challenged when the kids are yelling (or troops are complaining). Some fascinating research has been done showing that the mere recognition and honest labeling of that emotion, fear, when it arises, helps to calm it and allow your higher cortical functions to take back control. In contrast, calling it “stress” has little capacity to kick control back from the brain’s emotional limbic system to the reflective, and more rational, frontal lobes. The distinction is subtle, but apparently critical to our brain.

    • Mary K Parker March 4, 2014 Reply

      I don’t think it’s a fear problem—it’s an expectation problem. Everything is going along swimmingly, until it doesn’t. And that is when the frustration sets in. Frustration is the symptom, expectations (and the response when those expectations are not met) are the roots. If you can learn to manage your expectations, you can expect that these periods of stress and frustration will ease.

      I’ve been working on this myself as someone who is tightly wound.

      “The most successful people I know are those who are good at Plan B.” (James Yorke).

  • Stephan Rey February 25, 2014 Reply

    Let the stress out. Fine. As long you know you are under stress. Most of it is unconscious and deals with judgments and beliefs that you might not even be aware of. For example, you are supposed to be a good parent but today really sucks: you really want to look at this ballgame and your kid is taking so long to tie his shoes when you picked him up and you know the game will start before you enter the driveway. Your mind goes bonkers as the hedonist in you wants the fun NOW but your inner judge tells you “as you are a parent and as you chose to have this kid, you must stick to the plan and stand up to your role”. This creates tension that often tears people apart. Such tensions occur in many more insidious ways than facing a person who is yelling at you. We are our greatest stressor – if only we knew… Luckily, our backs will start hurting to let us know some rage and anger we do not let out is working us up…

  • Andy Wittwer February 25, 2014 Reply

    Thanks for writing about this kind of stuff Peter. I think it’s brave to discuss the times we’re out of control; there are a thousand suggestions of how you could’ve handled yourself differently after the fact, and it makes it easy to judge. I appreciate your vulnerability.

  • Eddy February 25, 2014 Reply

    Thank you for validating my periodic screaming at the inner surface of the windshield – not road rage – but stress relief mostly parked, almost always at a standstill.

    Thoughts on other comments: Thank you LN, I like the idea of finding the right buttons to push on myself; LK, that’s a scary thought – but I have been there after having had the wrong buttons (mine) pushed. I have exploded verbally at the perp, felt better afterwards, but achieve the same relief doing it in private, and I don’t give the perp the satisfaction of boiling over ;-). That said, we know that anger management is an issue and associated violence takes it toll – I don’t know if windshield screaming averts violence; SS, Contemplating my motive for these windshield antics and I consistently come to frustration rather than fear. My stress screams are borne of frustration and anger. I have also known fear a few times, and that decidedly triggers a methodical response and has saved my skin; SR – when I let loose on a windshield I know what I am doing and by letting fly the invective I spare myself the non-productive angry exchange with the perp. When it comes to kids (and adults), I look for ways to diffuse the situation through empathy, humor and, well, let the anecdote illustrate: My son refused to get dressed to go to a christening, so without commotion we got in the car (getting in the car in his b-day suit was a cool idea) and drove to the venue. His common sense caught up as he stood there in the parking lot contemplating those big wooden doors.

  • Tom February 25, 2014 Reply

    Thank you Peter. It’s never ceases to amaze me how transparent you are with your readers. Everyone has bad days, or seasons in their life when stress gets the upper hand. Thank you for addressing it, saying to all of us that its normal and giving us a path to deal with it.

  • Bridget February 25, 2014 Reply

    Thank you for the permission. I’m going to scream and cry. Then I’ll go to work.

  • Nalina Kumar February 25, 2014 Reply

    Peter, I like reading your blogs. They are genuine and discusses issues we all face. I like your suggestion of tapping the keys on the word document and hit delete. I know from personal experience, when I scream even in private, it seems to rob me of so much energy after the fact – it is the adrenalin rush, the fight or flight – anger is toxic for our system. My guru (Sai Baba) says we loose 3 months worth of stored energy in one bout of anger. So, I have found a way to handle stressful situations that leaves me peaceful and let me sleep well at night. This is an age old technique.

    I simply pick up my daily journal and pour into it all my thoughts, and frustrations, at the end of the day before I sleep. Doing so usually helps me discover my own wisdom of why I am feeling the way I am; afterall I cannot change someone else; I can only change how I react to things. With this kind of self analysis, I have typically found that it is not worth it for me to loose control and upset myself and my own peace. I have vowed to myself, I will not let anyone or anything stand between me and my peace. It took me a long time to get here, but it is worth the try. Daily meditation certainly helps.

  • Jt February 25, 2014 Reply

    Great idea to let it out–in private–instead of letting it fester internally.
    Equally important is to understand what events trigger your stress in the first place, and the underlying emotional neuroses that fuel its growth. As Dr. John Sarno writes about it in his book, “Healing Back Pain,” “unrecognized stress” is a major cause of neck, shoulder, back etc. pain.

  • Melissa Weiksnar February 26, 2014 Reply

    Ah, memories of the classic Apple “Mush-for-brains” ad …

  • Swapna February 26, 2014 Reply

    Peter, I like all your articles… but some how this article/message didn’t convince me…

  • VN February 26, 2014 Reply

    How about stress that attaches itself to addiction. So the destress becomes reaching for the temporary relief rather than a physical release.

  • Kalyani February 26, 2014 Reply

    Thanks for sharing this article. We all know the fact that we should always think before reacting to stressful situations. But we tend to forget. Thanks for reminding us.

  • Greg Marcus February 26, 2014 Reply

    Peter – I really like the genuineness of this post, and I totally relate to that feeling when emotions take over. Having a way to cope that doesn’t damage a relationship with another person is better than just letting loose on them.
    When I get too stressed, I totally blow my top, or get very snippy and irritated. When I do, or notice that feeling coming on, I do a quick inventory of my life, and eliminate 1-2 things from my schedule over the next few days. Stress is often a result of having too many things to do. By doing less, it becomes easier for me to remain calm for the things I need to tackle.
    I look forward to your next post
    Greg Marcus

  • Jim Ryan February 26, 2014 Reply

    I prefer to think of it like riding the wave of a negative emotion. Yesterday I started to lose it when a warning light came on in my car, after I just spend a butt load fixing it last week. I felt the anger start to flow through me and I step up on my board and rode that wave knowing that it was going end in a few minutes. Just knowing it was going to end, I knew I could ride it out. I was calm when I got to my mechanic and it turned out to be nothing. Ha

    Love your stuff Peter!

  • Gerard Arlandes March 1, 2014 Reply

    This sort of releasing stress is effective in the short run, in the long run other more effective solutions that work on the roots of stress might be taken. Otherwise the stress comes back again and again until we find the real cause and we can manage it.

  • Mally March 1, 2014 Reply

    Thank you Peter.
    I just ‘happened’ upon your article now, whilst having the first quiet fifteen minutes in about two months. (Have four kids; just moved house.) Was supposed to be ordering the weekly shop…. Glad I read your article and the comments instead. Absolutely where I have been at for too long. As Bridget said, thank you for the permission.
    I have a typewriter….. I may be clacking away on the keys tomorrow. Something so satisfying about making an acceptable noise. I can hit the keys as hard as I like – if I don’t hit them hard enough, the letters won’t appear. Computers have robbed us of that. As Mitch Hedburg once said, you can’t zip a fly sheet in a rage. (I misquoted him, but you get the gist.)

    So thank you. I feel lightened for being reminded of my own release valve (bangy typewriter).

  • Sue Pridgen March 3, 2014 Reply

    Let me see if I can try this one more time.
    Hi Peter,
    You have a lot of things going on in your life. Work, Family, Co-Workers, The Little Life’s Extras thrown in All of those things can cause anyone to yell in the car, hit pillows and yell at the woods. So I can relate. My situation went a little further It effected my health. I think it might have come for working 40-60 hours week/caring a lot about my job but dealing with my co-workers I think is where the most of the stress came from. I also had 2 sons and a husband-guilt from overtime. But the doctors think it was basically the sleep deprivation that brought the epilepsy back That’s why I am not allowed to work. A little wrinkle that I don’t like.Not only did it effect my health but over the years that one event seemed to cause everything else in my life to snowball and still is. I keep waiting for the light at the end of the tunnel to come. But so far I haven’t seen it. They say everything happens for a reason. I I just wish out of all of this I knew what that was. I keep waiting. But in the meantime, discussion in networking groups keep me in touch with what I used to do. That’s as good as it as it is going to get for now anyway…

  • Nic March 5, 2014 Reply

    “Reason and stress speak different languages. Reason is intellectual; stress is physical. Reason favors words; stress prefers action.”

    Yes, thank you for the reminder Peter. Even though I’ve heard this many times, and do use physical action to get out over-the-top stress-induced rage, sometimes I forget. I wasn’t able to read your article when I saw it yesterday, I was too stressed by the noise of the guy water-blasting the roof over my office, and instead headed to the park and walked off the stress. Today, with a much calmer perspective, I can enjoy your article and enjoy how human we all are. Thanks again for your blog.

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