“Every couple I know said they fought after going to the grocery store last week. And it makes sense because the grocery store scene right now is really scary and people don’t realize they’re feeling fear, they push it all to anger,” Jessica Hendel, an LA-based screenwriter (and my step-daughter), told me.
Jessica is right that most people unconsciously discharge their fear in all sorts of hurtful ways that adversely affect their health and relationships. Now, more than ever, people need tools to handle their emotions. Specifically, we need tools for calming our nervous system and making sure we don’t take stress out on our loved ones. Families are going to fight more when they’re cooped up. The best thing we can do for our relationships is to learn some tools and tips to work with our mind, brain, and body, so we don’t behave too badly.
When tensions run high and we find ourselves fighting with the very people we love more than anything in the world, we need to STOP and reflect on what’s happening inside.
Know about these 10 tips for when tensions rise:
1. Call a time-out for reflection. When my husband and I start to escalate our tone of voice, and amp up for a fight, I literally play referee and sign a TIME OUT. If we are going to fight, let's at least pause to acknowledge it so we are not out of control. Then together we can think through if we want to fight and if we think a fight will help. Sometimes it's needed, but mostly it's a sign our fuses are short and we need to take space until we calm down.
2. Do a self-care check. Ask yourself Am I hungry and when did I last eat? Since the pandemic started, many of us have been on the anxiety diet, which happens when we lose our appetite from our stomach's reaction to stress. But even if we don’t have an appetite, we must eat to keep our mood from plummeting. Am I tired? It’s natural to have trouble sleeping or to sleep a lot when stressed. Knowing if you are tired is important so you can understand your mood. Let your loved ones know that you’re not angry at them and they did nothing wrong. You are just hungry or tired.
3. Take time to acknowledge how you are feeling below the neck. Try this gentle exercise to Drop Into Your Body to work purposely with tense and stressed-out parts of yourself. Take note of the sensations you feel inside, like an increased heart rate or a pit in your stomach (click here for a list of sensations). Remember all emotions bring forth physical sensations. With practice we can tolerate the physical sensations our emotions bring forth without having to block them with defenses that cause us to lash out. When you notice physical sensations, adopt a stance of curiosity and self-compassion towards yourself, breathe deeply as you stay with the sensation, and after 30 to 60 seconds you might notice a shift. By practicing this type of deep awareness, we gain space to consider our behavior.
4. Do your best to Identify what you are experiencing. Are you scared? Frustrated? Sad? Anxious? Jittery? Feeling sick inside, alone, or uncared for? Whatever feelings you have, just stop and validate them. There’s no wrong way to feel, only wrong ways to behave. If you need help identifying what state you're in, use the Change Triangle as a guide.
5. Check if you are worrying about catastrophic events in the future that haven't happened yet. One way to settle down is to shift from worrying about the future to grounding yourself in the present moment. Ask yourself this question as a reality check: Am I or is anyone I love in danger right this minute? You might be afraid of the future, but that is not the question. You want to help your brain, mind, and body feel safe, if you are safe-enough. Are you physically ok right now, besides feeling scared, anxious, bored, cooped-up, sad, and angry? Most of us are ok-enough right now. Just acknowledging this with a nice long deep breath can offer some relief. While we all need to self-quarantine in order to care for ourselves, our loved ones, and to be good citizens, most of us will be fine. Allow yourself to relax into that.
6. Remind yourself and each other over and over again: This situation is temporary, this feeling is temporary, this quarantine is temporary. Because it is.
7. Use tried and true techniques that lower stress. I use grounding and breathing exercises frequently whenever I feel tense, jittery, panicky, overwhelmed, or angry. These days, I ground and breathe at least four times throughout the day to calm my mind and body. Even a little shift for the better is a big accomplishment.
8. Change your environment if possible and adopt a playful attitude. You might not feel like being playful at first. You can try it anyway and see if your brain starts to shift, which it might. Walk, run around, kick a ball, dance, count birds, learn the names of different trees, or prepare a garden bed for planting. A calming technique we use in trauma therapy is simply naming three colors, sounds, and textures you see in the environment. Try a few rounds of this on your own and/or with your children. If you can't go out because you live in a city, look at photos of the beach, mountains, or any place you love. Imagine you're there and experience it vicariously. Imagination and play go together. They are both great for calming stress and important for wellbeing for both children and grownups.
9. Make a list of simple things that calm you. During calmer times, develop a list of things you can try to shift from a distressed state of mind to one that feels better. I call these state-changers. Look at your custom list in times of acute irritability and distress. Execute each state-changer one by one until you feel relief. Here are things that work for me and others:
Work the Change Triangle
Take a long hot shower or hot bath
Make yourself tea. It’s nurturing
Listen to music or a podcast
Video chat or phone a friend
Watch a TV show
Read or listen to books alone or with your family
Add your own ideas below:
10. Talk about how you feel with your family. Once you take time to tend to your internal world, share openly and authentically with your partner, spouse, family, and friends. It’s amazing how talking about our feelings transforms them into something better. Know that others probably feel the same way as you even though they might express it differently. For example, some people act tough and distant, demonstrating defensive anger, when they are in fact experiencing the core emotion of fear. Other people can speak from their core emotions and say, "Hey, I am afraid. I need a hug." Emotions don't need to be fixed. They need validating and sharing.
Each time you want to say something nasty or mean to someone in your family, DON’T! Instead take a break, and validate what is happening inside you that is making you want to fight. Then, actively force yourself to remember you love these people. Shift into the loving, tolerant, kind, caring, and compassionate parts of yourself for the sake of yourself and your loved ones. Adversity provides an opportunity for change. I hope you will challenge yourself to work with your emotions wisely. Don’t take them out on the people you love. You can do it!
For a comprehensive but easy to read book to demystify emotions and teach you how to work with them, check out It's Not Always Depression: Working the Change Triangle to Listen to the Body, Discover Core Emotions, and Connect With Your Authentic Self (Random House & Penguin UK, and in Chinese, Korean, Polish, & Lithuanian translations. Coming soon in Spanish and Japanese.)