The Last Stress-Survival Guide You'll Ever Need
Putting Stress Triggers in PerspectiveStep 1: Identify the Stress Maker
Let's say, your ex is late bringing the kids back to your house at the end of the weekend. The situation may appear to be the agitation trigger, but you need to dig deeper. What is it about that situation, specifically, that makes you feel so stressed? Write down what's going through your brain: "He's always late. He'll have said nasty things to the kids about me. He probably let them eat nothing but junk food and meet his girlfriend."
It's predictable that if this is what you believe, you will feel angry and stressed out and might respond by lashing out verbally and making frantic calls, says Donald Fausel, PhD, professor emeritus at Arizona State University's School of Social Work, in Phoenix, who adapted SIT to help stepfamilies deal with the inevitable stresses of blended households.
Some other examples, for different stress triggers: Your teenager is out past curfew and not answering his cell phone. ("Something terrible has happened," you worry.) Or your sister is reluctant to commit to helping care for your aging parents. ("She's always been selfish, just like all the times she palmed things off on me when we were growing up," you inwardly seethe whenever the subject comes up.)Step 2: Examine the Evidence
Now that you've assessed how you feel, it's time to take a step back and reality-test your assumptions against other possible explanations of the situation. The reason: "What we think isn't always true. It's not that we're crazy. We're just overgeneralizing, magnifying, or making cognitive errors," says Ellen Ostrow, PhD, a psychologist and owner of Lawyers Life Coach, in Silver Spring, Maryland.
Ask yourself: What's the evidence that your ex is running late on purpose to hurt you? Is it true that he's only late bringing back the kids when he knows you have plans that depend on his punctuality? Is he only unreliable when it comes to you -- or is that his general pattern with everybody? Is he always late or only occasionally?
For the two other scenarios, the principle is the same: When you get anxious about your teen's safety, ask yourself the probability (yes, it is possible, but unlikely) that something catastrophic has happened. Also, how often has he pulled this stunt on you? As for your sister: Yeah, she does have a selfish streak, but are there outside constraints or reservations to which you're not giving proper weight?
"Think of it as playing Perry Mason," Dr. Ostrow suggests. That very stance -- playing the calm, objective observer even if you don't actually feel calm -- allows you the distance to change your self-talk and calm your psychological responses. If you're forced to concede that there are other possible explanations for your ex's behavior, use this cooler, problem-solving frame of mind to move forward to the next step in transforming a stress-laden exposure into a lesson in change.
And if your initial assumption proves to be true -- he really is trying to push your buttons -- then the issue is to take advantage of your new emotional distance to find ways to reduce his ability to upset you.
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