How We Work

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The Best Way To Defuse Stress

It may seem like you have an anger problem, but it could be a stress problem.

I knew that I probably shouldn’t send the email I had just written. I wrote it in anger and frustration, and we all know that sending an email written in anger and frustration is, well, dumb.

Still, I really wanted to send it. So I forwarded it to a friend, who knew the situation, with the subject line: Should I send this?

She responded almost immediately: Don’t send it tonight. If you feel like you need to send it tonight, then I think it is for the wrong reasons. Make sense?

Yep, I responded. Thanks.

Three minutes later I sent it and bcc’d her.

She was flabbergasted: You changed your mind that fast?!?!?

Nope, I responded. My mind is in total agreement with you. But my mind didn’t send the email, my emotions did. And they feel so much better!

Most of the time, I’m professional, focused, empathetic, thoughtful, and rational. But that takes effort and, periodically, I lose that control. I might write an inappropriately aggressive email. Or raise my voice at my kids when they don’t listen. Or lose my temper with a customer service rep on the phone who seems to be missing my point.

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It might look like I have an anger problem, but I don’t. I have a stress problem. I can be tightly wound. And, as a result, quick to anger.

In those moments when my stress erupts, my rational mind doesn’t stand a chance. It’s like trying to use intellectual arguments to talk down a stampeding bull.

Reason and stress speak different languages. Reason is intellectual; stress is physical. Reason favors words; stress prefers action. Our minds can advise us all they want, but our bodies have the upper hand. In fact, the more our minds try to curtail our stress, the more volatile it becomes.

If you pause to feel your stress, you will recognize it, quite literally, as energy flowing in your body. We live with that energy all the time, and, typically, it’s useful — it keeps us fresh, on our toes, and ready for action.

But, periodically — and I would argue increasingly — our stress levels rise well beyond useful. And, when that happens, we can easily lose control of our actions.

Think of stress as a monster, who lives in your body and feeds on uncertainty. The monster’s most satisfying meal starts with the sentence: “What will happen if...?”

What will happen if that presentation fails? What will happen if one of the projects I’m working on runs into objections? What will happen if I don’t have enough time to finish my budget? What will happen if my explanation doesn’t satisfy investors? What will happen if the company doesn’t get its financing?

As the uncertainty grows, so does the monster. Eventually, the pressure to escape the confines of your body proves too great. At that moment, you open your email, read something that annoys you and BOOM!

Here’s the interesting thing: After the explosion, we relax. Sending that angry email felt great. The monster escaped.

But not without consequences. The reaction of the person who received my angry email? That’s another story.

The question we need to answer is: How can I release the pressure without doing damage in the process?

Many of us try to manage or ignore our stress. We attempt to push it down, put it aside, breathe through it, or rise above it. But that’s a mistake. All those responses only encourage the monster to grow unfettered and, usually, unnoticed. Eventually, without fully understanding why, we get sick or explode or burn out.

There’s a better solution: Don’t try to manage your stress. Instead, dance with it.

The monster wants out? Let it out. But do so on your terms. You may need to cope for a moment, just until you can get to a place where you have privacy. Then, when you know there will be no adverse consequences, let the monster have you. Free yourself to kick and scream and punch. Feel what it’s like to completely lose control.

Recently I was having a hard time keeping it all together while I was in the car with my three children, whom I love to no end and who are also amazingly skilled at pushing my buttons. I held it together long enough to drop them off at our apartment. Then, when I was alone in the car, I let the monster take over. I yelled and cursed and screamed and hit the steering wheel over and over again.

It wasn’t pretty. Anyone looking at me through the window would have thought I was crazy. But by the time I returned to the apartment, I felt completely rejuvenated. And, most importantly, I was able to be a good parent.

I’ve yelled into the woods, repeatedly slammed my fists into my mattress, and jumped up and down stomping on the ground like an infuriated five-year-old. In places where people might be nearby, like office spaces, airplanes, or hotels, I’ve gone to the bathroom to have quieter hissy fits, jumping up and down and shaking without letting my voice rise too high.

If you really can’t get any privacy, then, instead of email, open your word processing program and write everything you’d like to say in that angry email. Let yourself go, punching the keys hard as you type, using all the pissy language you’d like to. Let the monster roam free.

Then delete the file, straighten your clothing, and be professional.

Stress is, ultimately, about trying to control that which you can’t. So trying to control your stress is one more thing that increases your stress. Physically releasing the stress on your terms helps. The point is to create an intentional and safe doorway for the stress to escape before it explodes.

It wasn’t long before I received a response from the person to whom I had sent my angry email, and she was clearly annoyed. I had flexed my muscles and she flexed hers back. This time, though, I was prepared. I went into another room, where I was alone, and shouted and jumped and punched into the air. After a few short moments, I felt powerful and balanced. Then I did what I should have done in the first place: I picked up the phone, called her, and had a reasonable conversation.

Originally published at Harvard Business Review.

Peter Bregman is the author of 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done and Point B: A Short Guide to Leading a Big Change.

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