Have you ever had the sense that your reactions to relatively minor stressful events are bigger than other people’s? Do you see other people reacting calmly to challenges, like urgent home repairs, unexpected changes at work, or being slighted by someone, but you feel very rattled by these circumstances?
If you’ve ever had a sense you overreact to stress, and would like to take stress in stride more, here are some suggestions.
Self-compassion is a great, practical strategy for increasing your cognitive and behavioral flexibility. What’s beautiful about self-compassion is that it doesn’t matter the cause of the stress or of your reactions. Regardless of the causes, self-compassion will help you feel less assaulted by the stress and allow you to access the most skillful, creative (as in creative problem-solving) parts of yourself.
2. Address past trauma.
When someone has a (seemingly) very outsized reaction to stress, such as becoming fearful, frozen and avoidant, or angry, it often has a basis in trauma.
The reason I used the phrase “seemingly outsized reaction” is that your reactions may not be outsized when they have a basis in past trauma. When past trauma is triggered, you’re not only reacting to the new event (which might seem like it shouldn’t be a huge deal on its own) but also based on your experiences.
We don’t always recognize the effects of trauma at the time we experience the trauma. Sometimes, we only realize later when new events trigger memories and reactions related to past events.
For example, I’m pregnant with my second child and I’ve recently realized I have more birth trauma from my hospital experience with my first child than I had previously acknowledged.
Trauma reactions often make a lot of sense when seen through the lens of your learning (that is, life) experiences. These influence what you expect from other people, authority figures, institutions, etc.
3. Identify when prior bad experiences are coloring your reactions.
Some experiences aren’t traumatic, but they still influence our future reactions. For example, I had a bad experience with some plumbing and gas contractors recently. Essentially, they did a lot of deceptive “mansplaining” and upselling, which I was well aware of. Quotes from two companies were twice as much for the same work as I’ve had done on rental properties in the recent past and equated to over $500 an hour for labor. When I had to call air conditioning contractors this week, that recent experience put me on edge about it and made me more suspicious.
4. Address cognitive errors.
Your cognitive processing style influences how you interpret events.
I often write about how I sometimes overreact to work-related emails. Because I’m anxiety-prone, in the absence of effusive positivity, I often read a hostile, dismissing, or irritated tone into emails that isn’t actually there. I know that this happens most when I’m working with someone new, rather than with people I know well and have mutual trust with.
Because I know this pattern, I make a habit of re-reading any email that triggers this reaction after 24 hours. Invariably, when I do this, I react much differently.
Addressing your cognitive errors on an ad hoc basis is not very effective. You’ll miss a lot of them. However, most of us have repeat patterns we can identify. You can then create habits for you to balance your thinking, as in my example.
One simple strategy is that, whenever you think of the worst that could happen, also think of the best that could happen. This will usually prompt you to think of scenarios in between the two extremes of worst and best as well.
5. Acknowledge factors outside yourself.
When stress happens, we often think of our reactions in personal terms. However, there will be lots of factors outside of yourself that influence your reactions, too. For example, the stress of having a newborn is far less if you have access to generous prenatal leave. Being a woman dealing with contractors would be easier if there was less sexism in the world, and if so many companies didn’t have the attitude of squeezing the most money out of their customers and put pressure on their employees to do this.
Acknowledging factors related to yourself and to the wider world, and how these interact, can help you react more self-compassionately and skillfully.
6. Know your strengths.
When stress happens, handling it will involve either drawing on your strengths or exposing your weaknesses. The more you know what your strengths are, the more easily you can connect one or two of those strengths with the problem at hand (e.g., creative problem-solving, social engineering, patience, conscientiousness, or whatever).
7. Develop new strengths.
Your skills for handling challenges aren’t fixed. You’ll gain skills and hone your strengths through experience solving problems. However, you can also deliberately learn new skills. For example, my latest book, Stress-Free Productivity, teaches creative problem-solving, identifying your strengths, and understanding when in your day/week you have the most capacity to handle challenges.
Which of these seven ideas feels helpful to you? Whenever I mention trauma in an article, I like to point out that readers should choose the strategies that appeal to them. If any suggestion makes you feel worse, leave that idea for someone else.