Stop the Stresscalation

posted by Martin Boroson on March 7 2011

It is so easy to get stressed these days. Watching the news makes you stressed. Checking the weather makes you stressed. Then there are the thousand shocks you must bear just in going about your daily life: You are driving and someone cuts you off. Your boss barks at you. All the salespeople are surly. You can’t reach a human on the phone. Just before the deadline, your computer crashes.

But it doesn’t stop there. As soon as you get stressed, you see the world through stressful eyes. Then it’s you who speaks in an abrupt, dismissive way. It’s you who cuts off another driver, you who pushes past someone in the store. It’s you snapping at your children. It’s you jumping to conclusions. It’s you making mistakes that cause problems, down the line.

In other words, stress gets passed on. It has a domino effect. Your stress becomes someone else’s stress and this becomes someone else’s stress.

But what if we could stop the stresscalation?

“Stresscalation,” as far as I can tell, is a term first coined by Ruth Dailey Grainger in 1992, in an article for the American Journal of Nursing. In that article, she uses the term primarily to describe how we exacerbate our own stress. For example, she cites obsessive thinking, living in the future, procrastinating, and perfectionism as some of the ways we make our own stress worse.

But I am using the term “stresscalation” to mean the way in which we pass our own stress on to others, creating ever-expanding ripples of stress. I therefore see stresscalation not just as a personal health issue, but as an ethical issue. To put it bluntly, when we pass our stress on to others, we violate the Golden Rule. We dump onto others what was just dumped onto us.

We might do this in flagrant ways—shouting or blaming or roadraging—or we might do it in more subtle ways—sending a nasty look, using a brittle tone of voice, not giving someone the benefit of the doubt, treating others as if they were “in our way,” or just being impatient with people because they happen to be younger or older or slower or more feeble or more ignorant or less important or more arrogant or more inconsiderate than we are.

But if we reframe stresscalation as an act of violence—a small but significant factor in making the world a more fearful, angry, or jumpy place—then perhaps we could also consider stopping the stresscalation to be an ethical imperative.

Stresscalation is a political issue, too. Call me naive, but I believe that most people genuinely want the world to be a more peaceful place. I also believe that most people think their actions are part of the solution (or at least not part of the problem). But I wonder how many times, each day, in the environments right near us, we actually make the world less peaceful, simply by passing on our stress to others.

If we can’t stop the domino effect of stress right here, in our homes and workplaces and communities, how can we expect others to stop their conflicts in faraway places, in situations where the stakes are more serious? If our political conversations are conducted from a baseline of stress, what kind of results can we expect? If our workplaces are emotionally toxic, what kinds of decisions do we make?

When you are stressed, it is simply impossible to think with a clear mind or to hear with an open heart. Consider this everyday example: When you are stressed, are you really able to listen to what someone else is trying to say? And if you are not really listening, what is the effect of that failure to listen on the person who is trying to talk to you? As she struggles to get her point across, or leaves the conversation feeling confused, frustrated, unsatisfied, unheard, what have you really accomplished?

But what if we made an ethical decision to not pass our stress on to others? What if we approached each business meeting, each political discussion, or each private, difficult conversation, first by trying to reduce our stress?  Think of the reverberations if we could each reduce our own stress footprint—if we could diminish our own contribution to the stresscalation—in a small way, right where we are. Imagine if we were in the habit of taking a moment, regularly, to greet each new moment with fresh eyes, uncolored by the stress that came before?

As April is National Stress Awareness Month, I will be writing several articles here about stresscalation and how to stop it. I’d like to hear from you. How do you avoid picking up other peoples’ stress?  How could we do better at not passing it on? And what positive actions could we take today to make someone else’s day less stressful?

Of course, stopping the stresscalation is not always easy. It’s particularly challenging when someone has clearly just dumped his stress on you, and you are feeling aggrieved or resentful. But it really doesn’t matter where the stress comes from, or whose fault it is. Once you are stressed, in that moment, it becomes your responsibility. You are holding the hot potato. And what you do with it is up to you.



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