Last week I began to answer the following question from one of my students:
“I have been finding many of my new conflict resolution skills very helpful. However, to my dismay, sometimes I’m feeling stressed out and then if I become angry I find my skills fly right out the window. Why do you think that this occurs, and is there anything I can do about this?”
I began to answer this question by first explaining how mounting stress can lower the threshold for triggering an emotion blow-up.
I then explained that when we notice that we are at the edge of exploding, we would be wise to use THE SIGNALING TO BACK-OFF TECHNIQUE. We now begin to look at another approach that can help people who find themselves dealing with an overwhelming stress problem.
UTILIZING THE CHRONIC
Some forms of stress may be so minor that they don’t give us much reason to think that they can have a serious negative effect on our functioning. In the stress literature, these minor stressful events are called hassles. If several are occurring during a relatively short period of time and are occurring day after day, minor hassles can become major stressors. And even major stressful experiences, when they begin to occur regularly, begin to seem “normal.” In time we may not connect the stress that has begun to feel “normal” with our irritability. Rather, we may come to believe we have a hostile temperament.
Here’s a strategy to help you find out if chronic stressors are a problem for you. Just below this paragraph is a scale that provides a list of chronic stressors and a space for you to rate on a 0 to 5 scale how stressful you find each, with 5 indicating the highest level of stress. You may notice that I have not included on the list stressors that are transitory, such as the death of a loved one or moving to a new home. Transitory stressors can be quite severe but time and warm friendly support throughout these rough periods will typically put them to rest.
CHRONIC STRESSORS SCALE
Stressor Zero to 5
- Stressful commuting
- Lack of quality sleep
- Lack of regular exercise
- Noisy environment
- Stressful eating pattern
- Lack of supportive relationships
- Being provided too much negative criticism
- Boring job
- Chronic health condition
- Feeling worthless
- Worries about financial problems
- Use of alcohol
- Use of cigarettes
- Use of other drugs
- Recurring angry memories
- Other stressors
a. ________________ b._________________ c. _________________
Once you fill out the Chronic Stressors Rating Scale, you may notice that you can eliminate one or more of the stressors rather easily. But for many of us, this is too difficult at first. As an alternative approach, get your total Chronic Stressors score by adding up all of the ratings that you made on the right side of the scale. Then have a problem solving session, perhaps with a friend you trust. Your goal might be to find a set of strategies that lead to a lower total score of just 5 points.
Completely eliminating a stressor or two is only one approach to reducing your total score. Another approach is to find a way to just reduce the intensity of a few of the stressors. For example, say that you rated “Lack of regular exercise” a five because you get practically no exercise and you are really feeling very, very stressed about that. Perhaps you will be unable to figure out right away how to get all of the exercise you need. Nevertheless, you may still think of a way to begin to get a little more exercise each day so that you can reduce your rating for this stressor from a five to a three. This will lower your total score by two points. Now you only have to find a way to reduce two or three other stressors a point or two in order to lower your total score by five points.
Here’s a parable that will better illustrate someone utilizing the Chronic Stressors Scale.
The Parable of Jenny
While Jenny is having a sandwich in the lunchroom working on her Chronic Stressors Rating Scale, her friend, Trish, comes over.
“Jenny, what are you up to?” she asks.
“I’m trying to figure out how I can reduce the amount of stress in my life so I won’t get so angry all the time.”
“Well, let’s see here,” says Trish looking over at Jenny’s ratings. I see you gave yourself a five for stressful commuting, a four for lack of quality sleep, a five for lack of exercise, a four for a noisy environment, and a five for worries about financial problems. Oh, look, I see under other stressors you wrote in ‘feelings of loneliness.’ You gave yourself a four on that one. Then you wrote in, ‘price at the gas station going up.’ You gave yourself a five for that one.”
“Yeah, each time the price for gas goes up a few cents more it really ticks me off. I already have financial problems and, man, when I fill up and see what it’s now going to cost me every week, it really gets to me and I see myself getting angry all day long for the stupidest stuff!”
“So, what have you come up with to lower your stress levels?”
“I just began to think about it, Trish. I’ve been thinking about maybe buying some earplugs. I have a wonderful family living next door to me, but there’s a newborn baby in the family that starts to wail quite a bit. He’s darling, but I have to admit that it sometimes starts to get to me. And there’s a two-year old there that can scream to high-heaven quite a bit also. Still, putting earplugs in my ears, I’m not sure I’m comfortable with doing that. Do you have any ideas of what I can do? I’m feeling a little stuck.”
“Hmmm, I see the first item that you gave yourself a five on is ‘stressful commuting.’ Tell me about that, Jenny.”
“Oh, it’s driving me crazy! It takes me usually an hour to drive to work, but I have to figure on an hour and fifteen minutes in case the traffic gets really backed up. Even then I end up being late a couple of times a month, which ends up putting me in a bad way with the boss. When that happens, I end up really, really, in a bad mood. During the commute there are people cutting me off, people honking, and a couple of months ago I got into an accident. With my $500 deductible insurance policy, wow, I got backed-up on my credit card payments. I’m scared to death that if I get into another accident I’ll be really unable to pay my bills!”
“I see,” says Trish sympathetically. “The commute sure is causing you a whole pile of stress. You know, I drive by Elm Street every morning, and I notice that the apartment buildings over there regularly have some rentals available. It’s less than a mile from work. You could walk through the park to get here in twenty minutes less than the drive. Then you can get your exercise in every day and save some money on gas.”
“I don’t know,” Jenny replies, “I’d come into work all sweaty.”
“A lot of people in our offices somehow make it work. They drive bikes or walk, carry a backpack, and change when they get in. Or, if you want, I can pick you up on my way in to work, and you can walk home. That way, you could sleep an hour later every morning and come to work more rested.”
“Aren’t those apartments off of Elm awfully expensive, Trish?”
“It would cost you an extra one fifty a month, but you pay for gas and upkeep on the car more than that. If you live by Elm, you could give up your car altogether for a year and really save some money. In fact, if you really wanted to save quite a bit of money for a year we could…” Trish suddenly pauses here.
“What were you going to say, Trish?” asks Jenny.
“Well, I’m also having some financial problems and I was thinking of finding someone to share an apartment with me. I looked at a two-bedroom place over by Elm. If we went in together, each of us would save a couple of hundred dollars a month and we’d still have our own rooms. Still, I sure like living alone. On the other hand, I’m really struggling to pay the bills.”
“Sharing an apartment,” says Jenny softly to herself. “I don’t know. But it would just be a one-year commitment. If it turns out awful, I would have made the sacrifice just so I can pay off all of those credit card bills. I might even end up liking it. I’d have someone to eat supper with…”
In the end, Jenny and Trish did get an apartment together. It turned out to be much quieter than Jenny’s last one. She is less lonely, her commute to work permits her to sleep an extra hour a day, and her commute home—a walk mostly through a park—is one of her favorite parts of her day.
Jenny feels physically better since beginning her daily walks and sleeps more soundly. Her anger is far less likely to interfere with her conflict resolution skills.
This parable illustrates that with a little problem solving it may be possible to figure out ways to reduce your overall stress level which may then reduce your difficulty with anger. We’ll be practicing using the Chronic Stressors Rating Scale from time to time in the near future.
Well, that’s our lesson for today. I hope you all have a great week.
Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on. This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional and social intelligence. To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.