10 Ways To Respond, Not React, In Moments Of Stress

Most of us have completely lost our sh!t at someone in a stressful moment.

Although it might feel cathartic to fly off the handle in the moment, the fallout from that kind of mental and emotional purging can be very destructive.

Words spoken in anger can never be taken back.

If you say something truly horrible to your spouse or child in a moment of rage, for example, you may damage your relationship with them permanently.

And the same can be said of certain actions.

Here are 10 tips that will allow you to respond, rather than react, during moments of stress.

1. Stop and take three deep breaths.

Just pause and breathe. We’re talking deep, calming belly breaths here.

Our natural response to any kind of stress is to hold our breath and seize up. This results in an even more accelerated heart rate as we go into “fight or flight” mode.

It also tends to result in people saying and/or doing things they later regret.

Instead of taking off your shoe and throwing it at the person who has upset you, take three deep breaths.

Breathe in through your nose to the count of eight, filling your lower lungs and belly with air.

Hold this breath to the count of eight, then exhale to the count of eight.

If doing this three times doesn’t calm you down a bit, repeat the process another three times. This should be enough to stop you from full-on hyperventilating while you figure out the next steps.

2. Go for a walk.

Whether you’re stressed out by a situation or by a person, taking a few minutes away from it/them can do a world of good.

Make your intentions known if you’re dealing with other people. Let them know that you need to go for a walk to clear your head, and you’ll address the situation when you get back.

Alternatively, if you’re stepping away from absolute chaos at home because your sink has exploded or the dog has annihilated your living room, make sure nothing is going to burn down if you’re gone for 10 minutes.

Take a walk at a quick but regular pace, taking deep breaths, and focusing on your surroundings. This will allow the stress hormones (namely adrenaline and cortisol) to ease off a bit.

If at all possible, try to take that walk in a natural setting, like a park, local forested area, or beach. The constant noise and visual stimuli surrounding you in an urban environment may only add to your stress. In contrast, nature almost always offers us a tremendous sense of peace and calm.

3. Determine whether your response is appropriate to the current situation.

In the same way that a punishment should fit a crime, a response should be appropriate to the situation at hand.

A lot of people repress negative emotions over long periods of time. If they’re continually stressed out by a child or spouse, for example, they might push down how they’re really feeling in order to maintain the peace.

Then, when they can’t take it anymore, they unleash all their pent-up anger and emotion. The result is a maelstrom that might be far more intense than the current situation really deserves.

Is your reaction reasonable as far as this specific situation is concerned?

Or are you boiling over about it because of several other contributing factors in your life?

Are you really in a rage at the person in front of you now? Or has their action reminded you of similar actions that other people have infuriated you with?

Try to avoid punishing those who are in your life right now for other people’s mistakes.

Just because someone else disrespected or mistreated you and you’re feeling triggered, doesn’t make it okay to lash out at those involved in this case.

4. Aim for logic over emotion.

Take note of the actual facts of the situation, rather than how you feel about it.

Write down the details of what happened, without any emotion-based embellishment.

For instance:

– The intern hit “reply all” to an email, instead of just “reply.”

– As a result, the entire board of directors read her description of a trustee as a “moon-faced assassin of joy.”

– I have received complaints from three of them about inappropriate behavior, plus one response agreeing with the intern’s assessment.

– This will cause some conflict with the board.

Once you have the facts laid out, you can determine the next steps needed for damage control.

In a situation such as this, rather than tearing the intern in half and firing her, you could take this as a teaching opportunity.

She can learn about the consequences of her actions, and how to go about crafting a sincere apology.

This isn’t the time to have a tantrum about how embarrassed you feel about the situation, nor how much you’ve always hated that intern. Going down this route might cause you to say some things that you’ll later regret.

That regret doesn’t just encompass feeling bad about being mean, either. Words spoken in anger can also come back to haunt you if the other person feels that legal action is required.

You might speak before really considering the consequences of your words, only to be horrified if something that could be construed as bigoted or otherwise hateful is uttered.

5. Sort out whether this was accidental or due to neglect.

There’s a huge difference between a situation that was caused by accident and one that came about through absent-mindedness.

For example, it’s understandable if you go ballistic because something in your home caught fire. Dealing with a house fire can be absolutely terrifying, and the instant response to how it was caused can be just as incendiary.

That said, it’s important to recognize when something is accidental, and to have a degree of compassion in that regard.

Did the aforementioned fire happen because a young person tried to cook something themselves and a grease splatter ignited? If so, how you react toward them (despite the smoke, and your heart pounding in your throat) will influence their self-confidence and independence in the future.

On the other hand, if that young person started to cook something and then got distracted by a video game or some other irresponsible activity, you are well within your rights to be much angrier toward them.

6. Assess the long-term damage, and the actions needed to rectify it.

Is this something that can be fixed? If so, how much effort will it take to fix it?
Alternatively, has irreparable damage been done?

For the former, detail the extent of the damage in a written list. If necessary, do some budget estimates about what it’ll take to sort it out, and how to go about that.

For instance, if you’re dealing with the aftermath of a kitchen fire, calculate what it’ll take to replace damaged items. Then, talk to the one who set the fire about how they’re going to contribute to those expenses.

In the case that irreparable damage has been done, get the one responsible involved in that process as well. Did the house burn down because of their negligence? Then they’ll need to be involved with insurance paperwork, and there will need to be personal consequences to their actions.

There’s also the possibility that little to no damage has been done at all.

If the grease fire was contained, didn’t destroy any property or injure anyone, then that’s a different issue entirely.

In cases like these, we need to take stock to recognize why we had such an intense emotional response to the situation. Was it a fear-based response out of terror that loved ones would be hurt? Or did it trigger past traumas?

Try to determine why you reacted as strongly as you did. Understanding this will allow you to be better prepared to handle similar issues in the future, should they occur.

7. Recognize whether this is a question of personal differences.

If the situation that’s angering you or stressing you out is an interpersonal one, take a step back and determine whether you’re upset because someone is behaving differently from you.

Or they’re taking an approach that’s opposite to yours. Even if it’s just as efficient, it might annoy the hell out of you that they’re not doing things your way.

This is often the case with Type A managers and such who are used to micromanaging others. They want things done a specific way, and don’t take well to others doing things differently.

The words “just do what I asked you to” tend to be bandied about by this lot, and tempers will range from mild irritation to flaring into incendiary rage.

8. Ask yourself how you would wish to be treated.

After you’ve calmed down a bit by using some of the advice above, take the time to determine how you’d want the other person to behave toward you if your roles were reversed.

Once you’ve determined what type of rational, respectful response you’d like to receive in that circumstance, you’ll have a better idea of how to treat the other person/people involved in this situation.

9. Get their perspective on the situation.

After you’ve calmed down a bit and given the situation a bit of space, talk to the other person about it. More often than not, conflicts arise due to misunderstandings rather than malice.

If they can give you their take on how things unfolded, you may be able to glean a better perspective on things as a whole.

Pulling back from the situation and processing all the information you have about it can calm heightened emotions considerably.

10. Ground yourself before doing anything else.

Consider this like closing the circle before moving on to another task, responsibility, or pursuit.

Remember those three deep breaths you took at the beginning of all of this? You’ll do something similar now to let all of this go so that you can focus on what needs to be done next.

If you have the time (and/or the space around you) to do some yoga, that would be the ideal choice.

Sit down on the floor, either cross-legged or in lotus position. Take another few deep belly breaths, and then start doing some nadi shodhana alternate nostril breathing. Here is a video that can help guide you if you’re not already familiar with the practice.

Like most types of conscious, meditative breathing, this helps to alleviate stress and anxiety. You may be surprised to discover how effective it is at helping you to calm down after a stressful situation.

Take 10 of these breaths to start with, and then determine whether you need more or not. In fact, even if you feel that you’re doing just fine and don’t need any more, take another 20 anyway.

If you have the energy to do so, move into some rooting, grounding yoga poses like virabhadrasana (warrior pose), or vrikshasana (tree pose). Both of these encourage balance and stability, as well as releasing stress. As you do these, envision any leftover stress moving out of your body, down into the earth.

After doing these calming practices, and calmly discussing everything that happened with others around you, you’ll be in an ideal position to move forward with grace.

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About Author

Catherine Winter is a writer, art director, and herbalist-in-training based in Quebec's Outaouais region. She has been known to subsist on coffee and soup for days at a time, and when she isn't writing or tending her garden, she can be found wrestling with various knitting projects and befriending local wildlife.