With all the upset and worry caused by the current Corona virus, it was a bit of a holiday to have something to celebrate. On 9 July 2020 my second book, The Stress Workbook was published. It’s been very heartening to receive so many congratulations from people. It’s particularly special to see people holding your book and getting ready to read it.
All my life I have looked for meaning and ways to work with my habits in order to live more harmoniously. It’s been a natural progression from that to write about things that are relevant to peoples’ lives. My blog aims to pick up on issues that impact wellbeing and offer ways to work to increase your own. So, when it was suggested to me that I should write about stress and show how compassion can help to work with it, I jumped at the chance.
1.We’re going through challenging times
There’s no doubt that the last few months have been extremely stressful. Worry about the virus is one thing but then there is all the fallout to deal with as well. Lockdown and all its ongoing effects have changed our lives in ways we could never have imagined a few months ago. Conversations with friends are opportunities to share how we are trying to manage the strangeness of the situation.
I had a significant birthday in June and had planned to celebrate the passing of another decade with trips to the UK to see family and friends. Obviously, the plan is now on hold. My eldest niece had her first baby during lockdown and as her mother is in the vulnerable category she had to go through the whole thing without her mother’s physical support. One of my nephews has lost his job because of layoffs and the other one had to celebrate getting his PhD in a virtual ceremony. All over the world people are struggling to cope with loss, upheaval, financial hardship, anxiety and uncertainty.
2. Stress is something we all need to cope with
Stress tends to get a bad press. When we talk about feeling stressed, we generally mean we don’t feel well in ourselves. That’s not surprising, as stress can make us tired, irritable, and generally uninspired. However, from an evolutionary point of view, our stress response was designed to keep us away from danger and safe enough to reproduce and raise our offspring. The trouble is that our modern lifestyle is very different from the one our ancestors led. The stress response that was designed to help us run away from danger, or to stand and fight it when we had the chance, nowadays is triggered by traffic jams, lost keys, crowded supermarkets and so on. Our sympathetic nervous system is chronically over-stimulated. We’ve become exhausted by our own reactions!
Although it is only natural to want things to go well in life and for things to turn out as we want, experience has shown us that life a series of ups and downs. We all face frustrations and disappointments. The Stress Workbook aims to show how stress is an inevitable part of life. We can learn to work with it in useful and productive ways that will benefit us.
3. The Stress Workbook points out our unhelpful habits
Of course, as we go through life, we adopt all kinds of coping mechanisms to help us get by. Some of these strategies work well but some of them can stop us being able to understand more about how we are coping.
For example, when we experience stress our tendency is to try and make it go away. We don’t want to feel uncomfortable, so we turn away from it. Sometimes we distract ourselves with a holiday, or TV, or by buying something new. Maybe we try and comfort ourselves but all too often it’s with an extra glass of wine, or more chocolate.
Another habit we have is that we don’t pay attention. Research has shown that for almost 50% of our waking hours we not thinking about what we are doing at that moment, but our mind is wandering off and thinking about completely different things. Have you ever driven home from somewhere and when you arrive, you have almost no memory of the journey at all? Or been in a meeting where you zoned out for large sections of the discussion and when it was your turn to speak, struggled to find the thread? The thing is that this does make us happy but rather stops us from being fully present for our experience.
Both of these habits are example of habits that get in our way and prevent us from moving forward. We need to replace them with beneficial habits—ones that will build our resilience and enhance our wellbeing.
4. We can develop new, useful habits to improve how we cope
With regard to stress the new habit we need to develop is that of leaning into our stress. This doesn’t mean to indulge in stress but to quietly allow ourselves to explore what is happening for us and how it is affecting us. We can begin to notice where in the body we register stress, and how it makes us react. Over time, we can learn to see what triggers our stress and even how to avoid these triggers. Instead of distracting ourselves we become curious to see how this all works and to find new ways of coping.
The best way to work with our wandering mind is through mindfulness meditation. With mindfulness we can learn to be in the present moment. Instead of going over something that has already happened, or worrying about what we’re planning to do next, we can simply be present. When we are present, we can bring so much more energy to what we are doing. We’re more focused and effective and our attention is sharper. That means we can notice what is going on for ourselves and others, so it’s a good strategy in working with stress.
5.We don’t necessarily see compassion as a means to work with stress
If we’re asked how we cope with stress, it’s likely that compassion is not the first tool that springs to mind. However, developing compassion for ourselves and other people helps to widen our perspective. Our focus on our own problems is lifted, as we take into account what is happening for other people. When we’re going through hard times, it’s all too easy to wonder, ‘why me’? Compassion teaches us to see that everyone, whoever they are, has difficulties and worries. We are not being singled out for special punishment. It’s just how life is.
Going on from this, we can take a fresh look at our reactions to events that cause us trouble. Let’s take an example. Say you had a work meeting that went badly and left you stressed and depleted. The event of the unsatisfactory meeting is one thing, but our tendency is then to pile on our reactions. We feel responsible for the meeting going wrong, while also feeling some anger towards those who did not agree with your point of view. So, we blame ourselves and blame other at the same time. Then we feel even more stressed and miserable. Learning to work with how we respond to difficult situations is an important act of self-compassion.
6. The Stress Workbook is packed full of practical, workable advice
Because this is a workbook, it’s full of reflections, exercises, worksheets and meditation scripts. The Stress Workbook is designed to flow as a continuous story and so the exercises are embedded into the text. This means that you can read the theory and then quickly put it into practice.
I have also included many stories from the workshops that I have given. They’re a great way to see how other people manage stress—where they get stuck and how they resolve it.
In theory you can begin at the beginning of the Stress Workbook, take your pencil and work through everything step-by-step. I suggest pencil because you might want to erase stuff and write something different. It means that you are evolving a set of strategies to work with stress through the power of compassion from the beginning of the workbook.
Do let me know how you get on. I always love to hear!
As the Corona Virus story develops, I’ve found myself thinking quite a bit of what it means to forgive. It’s something about the intensity of the current situation that’s made me question some of my basic assumptions around certain relationships.
What’s to forgive?
We’re several months into the Corona Crisis now and the atmosphere has changed since it all began. To begin with there was a sense that we are all in this together. Our shared vulnerability brought us together and made us feel close. Sadly, as events have unfolded this closeness has been exposed on many levels as being only skin-deep.
Huge gaps have opened up between how countries choose to protect their citizens. The divide between rich and poor countries is echoed in the difference between how well-off families are coping and what it’s like for lower-income families. Frontline workers receive plenty or praise but, in many cases have not been given the protections they need to care for themselves as they fight the virus. Old people in care homes, along with their carers have been too often over-looked. Insidiously, the virus has proven to have an even more devastating effect on BAME citizens. The global economy is reeling.
We all have our views of how different sectors are dealing with the crisis. As a Brit living in the Netherlands, I am profoundly grateful for the no-nonsense, practical approach that I find here. With family and friends living in the UK, I am consumed with sorrow and worry. It’s all too easy to blame politicians for not taking enough care. Forgiveness seems in short supply.
Am I able to forgive?
There are politicians who inspire trust and confidence. When they get things wrong it’s much easier to understand that no-one is perfect and to want to forgive them. The whole process is helped along when people in the public eye are able to admit it when they get things wrong and focus on putting it right.
Part of the challenge is that we live in such polarised times. It troubles me that I only need to hear the name of certain public figures to feel upset, or even angry. How can I forgive someone that I do not trust?
Perhaps this is the very time to try to go deeper. Why would someone act in ways that are dishonest and self-seeking? Does it imply a person at ease with themselves and their world? Could there be a possibility for a compassionate approach here—to try to separate the person from their actions? When we feel threatened, or uncertain it’s all too easy to behave in ways that are not necessarily beneficial. It does not mean that there is not a person inside who wishes to manage better but is currently struggling.
My approach just now is to try and see the person behind the actions that I disagree with and to try to fathom their reasons for being the way they are. It’s not easy for sure but I want to try. My wish is to stand for what I belief in with fervour but minus the hostility. I want forgiveness to be my fall back position.
Buddhist teaching on Buddhanature
When I encountered Buddhism, I was attracted by the presentation of what is called Buddhanature. It’s the idea that each of us is fundamentally whole, fully aware, wise and compassionate by nature—in other words, perfect as we are. It’s kind of the opposite of original sin. The thing is that we do not recognise our nature for what it is. We get distracted and follow along with the products of that distraction—ego, neurosis, self-absorption and so on. That means that we can behave in all kind of unfortunate ways.
The Buddhist path is all about learning to access your Buddhanature more effectively. However, here’s the thing—everyone has Buddhanature, including those politicians who I can no longer trust. So, here is the source of my aspiration to separate the person from their actions and to cut down on judgment. If I can remember for a moment that a person’s nature is whole and full of potential, then I can feel regret when they are not living up to it. Just as I do with myself. That makes it easier to forgive.
Focusing on the personal
It’s a way to try and stay personal with someone. To remember that they are a human being, just like me. I call it ‘focusing on the personal’. It’s much easier to put into practice with people that you know.
I’ve had two recent examples of how being able to forgive brings about so much relief and ease. Over the last couple of years, I’ve been struggling with a feeling of hurt with a family member. Harsh words were exchanged, and other members of the family got drawn in. It was very uncomfortable. When lockdown began, I heard that this person was in isolation and all alone. Somehow this knowledge cut right through all my feelings of displeasure and judgment. I immediately picked up the phone and had the first real conversation that we had enjoyed for months. All the things that I had objected to seemed to be quite insignificant in the face of all that was going on with regard to the pandemic. It seemed that in fact, there really was nothing to forgive.
The second example is with a group of people that I work with. We’re a loosely connected bunch, who are being asked to work together more closely. As we’ve never really gelled in a creative way, there was a high level of apprehension. A member of the group suggested that we meet together and tell each other two or three things that we find inspiring about the way we work. The effect was powerful. In expressing what inspired us in each of the people in the group, a long history of mistrust seemed to be swept away. Again, it seemed that after all, there was nothing to forgive.
In my experience, the pressing background of the pandemic can act as a catalyst that makes it more possible to forgive but it takes attention and work.
Awareness in Action is dedicated to building a community of people interested in living a life of meaning and purpose based on sustainable wellbeing. If you would like to join with us, you could make a start by sharing and commenting on the ideas you find in the blogs on these pages. Your story is part of our journey.
Have you ever met anyone who did not want happiness? Certainly, I haven’t. I have met people who have funny ways of going about trying to be happy but never anyone who was just not interested in it.
The funny is though, that wanting happiness and having it are two different things. In the first place, we don’t always know what will make us happy. Even when we work it out, we can’t always make it happen—we might long for someone to love but are not able to find the right person. The irony is that even when we do get what we are looking for, it does not always make us feel as good as we expected.
Happiness is tricky—partly because we have some funny ideas about it. Let’s look at four of these.
We confuse happiness with pleasure
In evolutionary terms, pleasure acts as an incentive for keeping us alive. So, food, sex, caring for our children, and accomplishing our goals cause the brain to release the chemical dopamine that make us feel happy. This search for good feeling has helped to keep the human race going, but these feelings were designed to be temporary. Think about it—if we only mated once and never needed to again, we would see a startling fall in the birth rate. Pleasure is something that is so enjoyable that we want to experience it again and again. However, it is designed as a temporary state with a specific purpose, rather than something that will last forever.
Sadly, we often seem to find this hard to accept. Our search for happiness can become narrowed down to the pursuit of pleasure. Once we have it, we to hold on to it– or at least try to repeat it as often as we can.
The trouble is that we so often mistake transient pleasurable experiences for lasting happiness. We have evolved to a place where our happiness is not based on survival alone. Yet so often we settle for the quick fix, pleasure-based route to happiness, without taking into account the full range of potential effects.
Perhaps we feel a bit low, so we surf the internet for a bit, then drink a coffee and checkout the news channels on TV. We could take some time to look into the low feeling in order to understand and resolve it. However, our impulse is to distract ourselves from it and not deal with it. It’s as if we are aiming to run our life as a series of good moments, with as few bad ones as possible to interfere with our final score.
We imagine it will last forever
So, we can see that from an evolutionary perspective, happiness is designed as a reward for keeping ourselves alive. It is not meant to last forever. In our modern western culture though, there is the idea that we should be happy all the time. We make choices based on the belief that they will make us happy now and into the future. The idea that our preferences or circumstances may change doesn’t seem to come up. We don’t consider that our future selves may see things differently from how we do now.
Anyone who has been divorced, or had a great new job turn out to be disappointing will have experienced this for themselves. When I was a young teacher in London, I decided to cash in my teacher’s pension so I could go traveling. It felt like a great decision at the time. Suddenly I had a good reserve of money to finance one of my dreams. Years later, when I left teaching, I deeply regretted not having a pension fund to carry forward.
On a lighter note, I have a Danish friend who became a Buddhist nun some years ago.Whenever it’s too hot to wear socks I have the treat of seeing a tall, slender woman in long,maroon robes with a tattoo of an iguana coiling up her left ankle. The frisky young womanwho, some years back, thought this tattoo would be an addition to her image, apparentlydid not envisage the possibility of herself as a nun in the future.
We think money will make us happy
2006 saw the publication of Richard Layard’s book, Happiness: Lessons from a New Science. One of the key findings that he highlightedis that over the last fifty years, the standard ofliving in the US and Western Europe has roughly doubled. No surprises there, you might think. The shock came with the second half of the finding—levels of happiness have stayed the same. Think of what it takes to double our standard of living – the compromises in work–life balance, the increase in the number of families where the only way to manage is for both parents to work, the stress of the increase in pace and variety of the modern workplace. It’s shocking to find that none of that has an impact on our basic level of well being.
The way we adapt to what we have and the extent to which we compare what we have with others comes into play here.
One of the most startling results to emerge from research into happiness is that big lottery winners, after experiencing an initial period of euphoria, tend to return to their normal levels of happiness within a year. The huge rise in their financial and then material resources is not enough to lift their happiness levels long term.
The trouble is that we adapt to what we have and so become used to it, and when the gloss of having it fades, we want something more.
The process of adaptation we experience with material possessions seems to work in the sameway for life experiences – so career moves, lifestyle changes or new relationships, ratherthan transporting us to new levels of happiness, eventually settle down until they become simply part of our normal pattern of happiness.
Along with adapting to what we have in life, we also suffer from comparing our lives with other people’s. So, your new car may be satisfying while no one else in the street has a better one, but as soon as someone turns up with a newer model then you become less satisfied. We’re pleased with our pay rise as long as we’re the only person to receive one, or if our rise is greater than anyone else’s.
We compare ourselves with our peers, people with roughly similar lifestyles. The lives of the super-rich are far beyond our reach, while many people feel comfortably far away from the very poor. Studies of Olympic medallists show that bronze medalists tend to be happier with their medals than silver medallists because they compare them- selves to people who did not get a medal at all, while silver medallists believe they just missed a gold.
We look for happiness outside of ourselves
We’ve seen that pleasure is based on external circumstances, such as our job, where we live, or what we like to eat. Although the benefits are short- term we can often mistake this for happiness, overlooking the possibility of something more reliable. A more helpful view is to say that there are two kinds of happiness: the short-term, pleasure-based experience and a more lasting happiness. The first kind is much easier to attain than the deeper happiness,which requires effort but once established serves as a reliable basis for wellbeing.
Giving ourselves the time and space to explore and develop this lasting happiness is oneof the deepest acts of self-compassion we can engage in.
So, how do we access this deeper kind of happiness? Firstly, we need to recognize that it isnot about looking outwards but depends on having an inner peace of mind and heart. Thisis the basis for self-awareness and the awareness of others – the foundation of compassion– that enables us to view our actions and those of other people with greater clarity. It canbe developed by working with both our basic attitude and with the actions we take whiletrying to be happy.
Meditation is the best way to get a handle on how our minds work. It helps us to work with our basic attitude and the habits we have. Bringing awareness into our actions means that we are more able to make the right decisions.
A deeper meaning to happiness
Sometimes, it’s worth asking ourselves how we value the happiness of other people. Is their happiness important to us? Would our happiness be important to them? Do we consider out happiness to be the most important? On what basis?
There is a simple question we can use here as a measure of whether or not our actions will be a source of lasting happiness:
Do they bring real benefit to oneself and others,or not?
Actions that bring benefit automatically result in happiness and help us to develop our compassion. We need to develop a clear sense of discernment to enable us to analyse our actions clearly in the light of this question, and to identify the habits that lead us away from lasting happiness even if they initially seem to bring pleasure.
It might seem a lot to take in but reflecting in this way will help us to navigate the tricky path of happiness. It could help to put things into a different perspective.
Awareness in Action is dedicated to building a community of people interested in living a life of meaning and purpose based on sustainable wellbeing. If you would like to join with us, you could make a start by sharing and commenting on the ideas you find in the blogs on these pages. Your story is part of our journey.
I have had one major incident of job loss in my career. It was messy and painful. Although it happened years ago, I can still wake up in the night and wonder what on earth happened. I wasn’t fired but made redundant, although the difference felt like semantics. The experience left me feeling disorientated, lonely and inadequate.
For most of us, losing a job means a scramble to find another one as soon as possible. The bills that need paying do not stop with job loss. My own solution was to become a solo entrepreneur, which involved a steep learning curve. There is very little time left to care for how wounded, low and discarded one can feel.
Here are some of the issues that I tried to work with while setting up my new business.
Who was I after my job loss?
My job had been in senior management in an international non-profit. I travelled a lot, I had teams who answered to me—I was a boss. When it was over there was a short period of time where I was completely disorientated. For so many years I had worked very hard and focused my energy on my work. Without it I was not sure who I was.
It took me a while to consciously disconnect myself from the job that I had had. I needed to remember why I wanted the job in the first place, and to re-connect with the motivation that led me to carry it out for so long. Slowly, painfully it became possible to remember interests that I had dropped through lack of time before my job loss. My meditation practice, which had become minimal during the busiest times, flourished again. The space it helped to open up enabled me to process what I was feeling in a way that was healing.
Struggling with a sense of shame
Brené Brown describes shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of live and belonging—something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.
That seems pretty accurate. I certainly felt that I had failed and become somehow lesser in people’s eyes. Indeed, by not being able to avoid job loss I had failed in my own eyes. However, much worse was the idea that people would think that as a failure I was not someone they would want to know. Not being able to explain to myself what had gone wrong made it very hard to explain to other people. I felt defenceless.
That was the place from which I set out to build the next phase of my working life.
Major cracks in my self-confidence
Perhaps it is inevitable that when you suffer a job loss you are precipitated into an intense period of self-examination. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a good idea to take time to reflect on your work habits and how you are coping with your working life.
The trouble comes when, hurting from the shock of losing your job, you forget all about how to be kind to yourself. I have had friends who have been made redundant or lost their job who have turned to me for help. I have never subjected any of them to the tirade of judgment and criticism that I poured out to myself.
Self-compassion was not so well known at the time that I lost my job. As part of my work now I have studied it quite thoroughly and wish that I had known more about it at the time. Learning how to tame the sharp voice of my inner critic and to change oneself through kindness would have helped me enormously. Understanding that my job loss was not something that only happened to me but was happening to many other people at the same time would have taught me a great deal.
Fear of what my job loss meant for the future
Underneath everything else there was the constant worry of not being able to get more work. The threat of financial difficulties was a constant drain on my energy. Working with that fear became a priority because when it got too intense, I froze.
Fortunately, we often have more resilience than we think. As much as I could, I used the fear to cut through my feelings of inadequacy and to spur me on.
The loss of community
One thing that I had not anticipated was how much I missed the people that I had worked with. People that I had worked with for years and seen every day simply dropped out of my life. Gone was the flow of ideas and the shared camaraderie.
When you work with other people there is a ready-made social network. Of course, you are joined together by the work you are doing but you also share all kinds of other things. You hear news of what is going on in other people’s lives. There is an audience for you to share what is going on in your’s. You accompany each other through all kinds of moods, challenges and accomplishments.
With a job loss, all this is gone in a moment.
Struggling with the sympathy of friends and family
My friends and family were kind and sympathetic, but I found it hard to be the one needing support. I am more used to offering it. Too often I found myself putting on a brave face when actually I felt really low. In fact, it was a journey for me to allow my vulnerability to show and to accept their support with gratitude.
However much we may need to move on after a job loss and find new work, we need time to grieve. Yes, it’s uncomfortable and it takes time but without it we are denying ourselves the opportunity to learn from what has happened to us. In order to move on in a good way, we need to be able to make some sense of what has happened. How we heal the pain of our loss will depend on being able to take the time for reflection, and evaluation. Job loss is one of the most stressful experiences we will face but it is also a time of opportunity. We need to give ourselves the gift of that time.
I hope you enjoyed this post. I am currently designing an online course to support people through job loss. If you could fill out my survey it would help me to gather data for the online course. It will only take you 10 minutes. Thank you so much!
It is a great pleasure to share this guest post from Ian Gawler. We have attended many retreats together over the years and it is wonderful to have a blog from him on my site.
How busy are you? Most people I speak with feel that their lives are becoming busier and busier. So, imagine this – maybe with a little help, it is possible to slow down, relax, and actually achieve more!
How might this be possible? Speaking personally, I came home from a great meeting last week. A lot had been achieved, good ideas developed, new possibilities explored; all in a great atmosphere. Keen to tell my wife Ruth about it, first we went to do what we do each evening, and that is to meditate together.
Paying attention to our body
As I settled into my posture, I noticed this buzz in my body. A fine trembling, tingling sort of a buzz. It occurred to me that this excited energy, left over from the meeting was a good thing, but how it might lead some people on into drinking too much or some other excess.
Also, it seemed to be in stark contrast with what it would be like to come home from a tough day – feeling depleted, despondent, even exhausted. Such a state, left unnoticed or unmanaged, could lead to other unhelpful activities, not the least of which may be engaging with the family or our partner in a poor state of mind.
The promise of meditation
Meditation offers this wonderful promise of being able to let go of our busyness and regain our balance. Whether we are excited or depleted, up or down, balance is better. With our body and mind in balance, we think more clearly, we react more appropriately, we are in a better state to relate well with others. We are likely to be fresh, vital and at ease.
In such a state, there will be no compulsion to talk, but an ease with doing so. We will have no compulsion to be spoken to, but an ease with listening. We will be free to relax in a healthy way or energised to take up something new when the time is right.
Four keys to meditation
In my experience, there are 4 keys to meditating in a way that reliably brings these benefits. Preparation, Relaxation, Mindfulness and Stillness. These are the essence of what I call Mindfulness-Based Stillness Meditation.
Put very simply, having prepared well, we relax. Relaxing deeply, we become more mindful. As our mindfulness develops, an inner stillness is revealed; naturally and without effort. We rest in open, undistracted awareness. This is Mindfulness-Based Stillness Meditation.
Oh yes, and at the great meeting last week, we began by sitting together and meditating. Two of those who gathered had never done such a thing before. They were guided very simply to aim to let go of whatever they had been doing earlier and to bring their attention to what was going on right now.
To assist this, there was the suggestion to be mindful of the sounds around about us, then the breath and that natural feeling of relaxing with the out breath. Then we simply rested quietly for a few minutes. Finally, we reminded ourselves of our motivation, to help as many people as possible through what we were addressing at the meeting.
How this can help
Having done this, the atmosphere in the room was transformed. Peaceful, calm, clear. After this short exercise, one of the group could not help speaking out. He said that on arrival, he had been really preoccupied with the busyness of what had been happening before this meeting and he felt his mind was all over the place. In fact, he had actually been concerned that he was in a poor state of mind to give the presentation he was required to do, but that, after that short quiet time; he now felt clear and ready.
Just having a conversation like that seemed to me that we began our meeting on a very real and open level. It rapidly developed into a meeting everyone went away from feeling where we had achieved a lot, deepened friendships and left felt energized. Not a bad return for around 3 minutes of quiet time…
So maybe it is possible. Slow down and accomplish more.
Dr Ian Gawler has played a role in pioneering and popularizing meditation and other mind-body techniques in the Western world. Since 1981 Ian has led many meditation groups, and with his wife Ruth, a GP, presented many workshops and meditation retreats.
A long-term cancer survivor, Dr Gawler co-founded the world’s first lifestyle-based cancer and multiple sclerosis self-help groups and convened Australia’s first Mind-Body Medicine conference, Mind, Immunity and Health.
Ian is a regular blogger and has authored six bestselling books including his latest Blue Sky Mind. He has also co-created a meditation app for people affected by chronic degenerative disease.
Dr Gawler was awarded the Order of Australia Medal for his services to the community in 1987.
We hear a lot about increasing levels of stress in the workplace. It seems that now almost 20% of workers in Europe say they experience stress in their job. I recently witnessed an incident with a flight attendant and a difficult passenger. It struck me how keeping your cool can come at a high price. Looking for ways to ease a stressful situation could work well with less cost.
The incident that caused stress
It was on a return flight to Amsterdam from the UK that I overheard a fellow-passenger giving a flight attendant a really bad time. It was hard to catch the full story from where I was sitting but it involved the passenger asking for hot water in a plastic, see-through cup. Apparently cups of this sort are not safe to hold hot water and the only alternative was the purchase—for three euros—of a polystyrene cup. Not surprisingly the passenger found this rather excessive. What was more surprising was his response—he proceeded to cross-examine the flight attendant in increasingly aggressive tones, applying the kind of ruthless logic that would not have been out of place in a courtroom.
The reaction to the stress
The flight attendant did his utmost best. He remained polite, consistent and managed not to react to the escalating tone of complaint and anger that he was subjected to. He had a kind of party line that he could fall back on, ‘Sorry sir, this is company policy, I am not allowed to give you this cup…’ and so on. After some time, he managed to get away and push his trolley on to the next customer. As he came past me our eyes met and I murmured, ‘breathe’.He looked at my rather desperately but did not respond.
The passenger’s final attempt to get his own way was daring—he simply marched up to the refreshment trolley and started all over again. He returned to his seat carrying a bottle of cold water.
The cost of that reaction
I happened to be one of the last off the ‘plane and exchanged a few words with the male flight attendant. Remembering my attitude of sympathy—but not my advice to focus on his breath—he asked me what I thought of the sort of thing they had to put up with. During our short conversation my earlier hunch was confirmed—when dealing with a stressful situation he relied on his determination to stay professional, rather than adopting any strategy tomanage his stress. Instead of looking for ways to ease the stressful situation, he gritted his teeth in the face of trouble. He took up the burden as a way of demonstrating to himself how efficient he was at enduring one of the downsides of his job. It would probably have been how he was trained.
3 ways to ease a stressful situation
Here are a few things that the flight attendant could have tried:
1. Humour helps to bring ease to the stressful situation
When he saw that the passenger was not impressed by the company policy, the flight attendant could have used humour. There is something farcical about two grown men arguing about a cup of hot water. With a bit of skill, he could have tried to get the passenger to see things from his point of view and to laugh with him.
2. Putting himself in the passenger’s shoes would have brought ease to the stressful situation
I found myself having some sympathy with the passenger, although I did not care for his aggression. It is galling to be told that a seemingly simple request cannot be granted. No-one likes to be managed and the passenger could probably feel that that was what was happening to him.
Because the flight attendant was focusing on containing the situation, he did not appear to take the time to see it from the passenger’s point of view. Nor did he really take the time to address the needs of the passenger.
Both men adopted opposing sides of the situation, without trying to find common ground. One of the most direct ways to disarm a situation is to realise that all the participants are just trying to manage their day. They would like their day to go well but could be dealing with all kinds of hassles along the way. We all have this in common.
3. Working with his emotions to bring ease to the stressful situation
The flight attendant had his emotions firmly under control but that was part of the problem. He was obviously challenged by the passenger and yet maintained the same party line throughout. Being able to notice when your emotions are triggered and then working with what you noticeis a more sustainable way of being with emotions.
When we are in the grip of emotions it can be hard to remember that they will pass, that they are not solid and real. Mindfulnesshelps us to be able to identify an emotion, to acknowledge it and to gently let it go. It helps us to respect it but not to take it too seriously. When we start to identify with the emotion and use it to bolster our position then we are creating a possible trigger for stress.
The kind of stress I witnessed on this occasion was not major, but it was nasty. The man I spoke to looked very tired by the end of the flight and I doubt if it was his last of the day. The tension he was holding looked like it was heading towards a stiff drink and a good moan—not so bad in small doses but not a good long-term strategy for stress-management.
If you have found the ideas in this post interesting you might like to look at my new online course, How to Make Kindness Matter at Work. You can find out more here.