I had a pretty good day yesterday. I was in Scotland running the pilot for a new employment law workshop with a group of supervisors. They responded well, my client was happy, it was great. Then at 6.20pm things went wrong. I had booked a train ticket from Glasgow to Milton Keynes and I arrived in plenty of time. As I sashayed up to the board at Glasgow Central to find out the platform number my cheerful mood chilled. I was less than thrilled to find out that we’d be going by bus. Thank the Lord it was only to Carlisle not all the way to MK, but still.......! I stifled a scream and went back out to find the bus.
Apparently there was some sort of signalling problem which meant all lines were blocked between Carlisle and Glasgow. While Virgin Trains didn’t communicate particularly well, they (or someone anyway) at least got a fleet of coaches together to transport passengers from Glasgow to Carlisle and on the bus I got into conversation with a very nice lady who was off to visit her uncle in Carlisle. She chatted to me about various things and we whiled the time away pleasantly enough.
At Carlisle it was all a bit of a scrum, but we all managed to get sorted out and eventually we headed off south. The Virgin staff did their bit well enough within the limitations that they faced so it was all Ok. Really.
I could have been angry and frustrated. It would have been easy to stomp round gnashing the collective Russell teeth, even though it would have been a waste of time and energy. Oddly enough I wasn’t really cross. I was (for me) surprisingly philosophical about it all.
How do you react when you face this kind of frustration? Do you lose your temper and/ or swear? Maybe you wonder bitterly what you’ve done wrong that deserves this kind of punishment (shades of John Cleese in full rant). Reactions like these might perhaps make you feel a bit better briefly, but they won’t reduce your stress.
Life and plans go wrong sometimes. C’est la vie. We just have to choose to manage our mangled plans in the best way we can. There are a number of simple coping strategies that you can practice to reduce the stresses arising from these types of situations.
In problem-focused coping, you try to change a fixable situation that is causing the stress. For example, if you have computer problems, you go through some basic trouble-shooting steps or call your IT support. In emotion-focused coping, you try to make yourself feel better about a situation that you can’t change. For example, you missed your bus, and there’s nothing you can do about that except to calm down and if there’s no reasonable alternative wait for the next one.
You know that feeling when a red mists descends? It reduces our efforts to manage the situation efficiently so before you even begin to cope with stress, remove excessive emotional responses. It’s only when you know what your emotion is that you can set about changing that emotion.
Once you have identified the emotion, practice emotional regulation. Pay attention to what your body is doing; are your palms sweaty, your eyes tearing up or your heart racing? This suggests that your body’s emergency responders are at work, the autonomic nervous system which controls “fight or flight” reactions.
Control your breathing by slowing it down. This will also slow your heart rate. Count slowly to ten breathing slowly and deeply in through your nose and out through your mouth. The best way to control your reactions to stress is to practice this kind of mental self-control.
Once you’ve taken the emotion away, you can tackle the requirements of the stressful situation and you’ll be more likely to remember that you do have a helpline number to call for IT support to fix your wilting computer. Whether it’s emotion- or problem-focused coping that the situation demands, your new mental clarity will allow you to find the route.
I finally rolled into MK station an hour late, tired but calm and managed to get a good night’s sleep after my long day. So much better than allowing my stomach to churn and worrying pointlessly about it.
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