Your day has started out fine but now one little thing after another seems to be going badly. Psychologists use the term “hassles” to refer to these small but annoying mini-disasters that plague our lives. Major life events and catastrophic disasters have the potential to wreak havoc and cause significant stress, a fact that everyone recognizes. What people don’t realize is that you can become equally stressed when the little things that go wrong pile up on a daily basis.
Think about the last time you encountered a string of mishaps. Your travel mug full of hot, delicious coffee spilled all over your clean outfit just as you were getting ready to leave the house. You broke your favorite necklace when it caught on your zipper. As you were grabbing your cellphone it fell out of your hand and crashed onto the floor. Perhaps your computer died while you were traveling away from home and you can’t get to the store to have it fixed. Maybe you missed your bus by one minute and now have to wait 15 minutes for the next one, and this will make you late for work or school. I could go on and on with these examples, but I think you get the picture. Annoying and sometimes expensive accidents hamper your ability to focus on getting stuff done that needs to get done.
How do you typically react when you face this kind of frustration? Do the swear words come flying out of your mouth? Do you blame yourself for your clumsiness or stupidity? Perhaps you blame the broken or damaged object itself (“that stupid coffee mug”). Maybe you wonder if you’ve done something wrong that deserves this kind of punishment. You might even magically wish you could turn the clock back a minute or an hour and somehow magically prevent the misfortune from occurring. Although these reactions might perhaps ease your emotional burden, it’s unlikely that they will make you feel better. They certainly won’t reduce your stress levels, especially if things spiral out of control—the spilled coffee makes you late for work which in turn gets you in trouble with your boss, et cetera.
Psychologists propose that there are simple coping strategies that everyone can practice to reduce their stresses from these everyday hassles. In problem-focused coping, you attempt to change a fixable situation that is causing the stress. When your computer dies, you go through some basic trouble-shooting steps or find a number to call for tech support. Your necklace breaks, and instead of throwing it out, you see if you can restore the broken link. In emotion-focused coping, you try to make yourself feel better about a situation that you can’t change. You missed your bus, and there’s nothing you can do about that except to calm down and try to make the best of it. There’s no one best way to cope. Whichever of the two strategies that is most adaptive depends on whether the situation is changeable or not.
Let’s take a concrete example to show how this works. Someone sends you an annoying email, and you could retaliate by sending an angry email in return. This isn’t exactly problem- or emotion-focused. Sending the angry email would potentially fix the situation, but it could also get you in trouble. Trying to reframe the situation in a positive way is probably a better approach. Eventually, you might figure out a way to address the problem by talking to the person directly and finding out what prompted that email.
This example shows that in addition to using one of the two coping methods, successfully confronting an upsetting situation means that you look at it with a clear head. You can’t be rational in your coping method when you’re upset. Before you even begin to cope with stress, you need to turn down the emotional fire alarm going off inside your head. Psychologists call this emotional regulation. In common language we call this not freaking out. Researchers are attempting to understand this process in relation to many aspects of adaptation, including “emotion coherence,” or making sense out of your emotions, as in a 2013 article by Stanford psychologists Elise Dan-Glausner and James Gross.
To regulate your emotions means that you need to be aware of them in the first place. Little things going wrong can make you fell angry, sad, frustrated, or even guilty. Figure out which emotion you’re experiencing. It’s only when you know what your emotion is that you can set about changing that emotion. You do this by going one step further back and figuring out what the thought was that triggered that emotion. Your anger may stem from the thought that life or the fates are conspiring to ruin your day when that first little thing goes wrong. Perhaps, instead, your sadness comes from the belief that something important is now lost or gone. Your guilt may arise when you blame yourself for being so lazy or inefficient.
Now that you’ve identified the thought and labeled the emotion, you can practice emotional regulation. Pay attention to what your body is doing—are your palms sweaty, your heart racing, or your eyes tearing up? This suggests that your body’s emergency responders are at work—namely, your autonomic nervous system which controls “fight or flight” reactions.
Although your autonomic nervous system is in fact “automatic,” and by definition not under voluntary control, it doesn’t have to dominate your reaction to stress. Using the rational parts of your central nervous system—namely, your prefrontal cortex (the planning center of the brain)—you can send signals downward to the rest of your body to relax.
Get your breathing under control by forcefully slowing it down. This will also slow your heart rate. Your cortex can also send signals down to the fear center of your brain, the amygdala, and “tell” it to settle down. Emotional regulation is just like the “count to 10” method you’ve heard since you were a kid about how to react when you get angry. We know now from countless studies on emotional regulation (and dysregulation, its opposite) that the best way to control your reactions to stress is to practice this kind of mental self-control.
Once you’ve taken emotions out of the picture, you can tackle the requirements of the stressful situation. You’ll be more likely to remember that, yes, you do have an 800 number to call for tech support to fix that messed up computer. You’ll be able to sort out your strategies to address that annoying email. Whether it’s emotion- or problem-focused coping that the situation demands, your new mental clarity will allow you to find the route.
Stress is an inevitable part of the wear and tear of life, as Hans Selye, the “father” of stress once noted. By controlling your emotions through these deliberate strategies, these inevitable stresses don’t have to take their inevitable toll.
Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.
Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2013
Dan-Glauser, E. S. and J. J. Gross (2013). "Emotion regulation and emotion coherence: Evidence for strategy-specific effects." Emotion 13(5): 832-842.