Letting go of negative stressors

Kinsale CBT therapist Linda Hamilton's Southern Star column on letting go of stress.
It's important to learn to manage stress.

In last week's Southern Star, I discussed how cultivating a compassionate mindset can help people to better manage the daily stresses of life. The column is reproduced below.


Some people go “ugh” when they hear the word compassion, associating it with what they perceive as touchy-feely do-gooderism. But what if I suggested that cultivating a compassionate outlook could help you better manage the day-to-day stresses of life?


Consider the following true story, told by psychologist and MyTherapist.ie blogger Dr Elaine Ryan. One morning, she was driving to work and a motorbike rider was coming towards her. She stopped her car well before the “lolly pop” lady was going to come up to help children across the road. This appeared to greatly upset the man on the motorbike. He slowed down, almost stopped his bike, leaned in her driver’s window and stuck his middle finger at her.


That’s not nice – not nice at all. Dr Ryan’s immediate reaction: heart pounding, surprise, annoyance.


Once she gathered herself, she had a choice. Choice 1: she could get angry and react to that anger by getting out of the car, but he had already driven away. She could stew about the incident (“What did I do to him? How dare he!”) and replay it angrily as she drive to work. Still upset hours later, she could speak about it over dinner when she got home and get angry all over again.


Choice 2: let it go by adopting an attitude of compassion towards the rider. He might be stressed and having a bad day. He might have anger problems, having never been taught to manage his emotions when he was younger (continued below...)



Now, you might say, “That doesn’t give him the right to behave like that!”. You’re right, but that wouldn’t allow Elaine Ryan to move on. ‘If you were in the car with me and we got into that debate, we keep the bad incident alive, when really it’s more helpful to let it go as quickly as possible’, she says. By viewing the incident in a compassionate light, it all becomes less personal, her anger is defused, and she gets to move on. ‘Compassion helps you to let things go. Compassion for the other person, and for yourself.’


To cultivate a compassionate mindset that allows you to better handle the daily stress of life, you have to ‘respond, not react’, notes Dr Ryan. Instead of reacting immediately (running after the rider, cursing, etc), you have to stand back from your emotions. You have to have the conscious thought: what do I need to do to effectively deal with this situation? How can I respond in a way that is most helpful to me?


Now, this doesn’t come natural to most people. It’s a skill that requires patience and practice. Let’s say you’re the driver but you don’t stay calm, as Dr Ryan did. Instead, let’s say you shouted and swore at the guy on the bike and later got upset with yourself. ‘Now I am not sure how you do “upset with yourself” but I generally go something like this’, writes Dr Ryan. ‘I play it over and over again in my head. I feel the emotion again. I call myself names inside my head, or out loud if I am telling someone about it. Thanks to how my mind works, this feeling of, now shame, triggers other scenarios in my mind, and I can bring them back to life again in my head’.


Is this helpful? No. How can you stop these negative thoughts? By being compassionate towards yourself, by reminding yourself that you’re human. ‘Think of it this way’, she adds. ‘If I had told you about the guy on the motorbike and then was telling you how annoyed I was with myself for being upset, would you agree, and tell me “you’re absolutely right Elaine, you should be ashamed of yourself for getting angry.”’


Of course you wouldn’t. You would rightly show her compassion and kindness and remind her she had been put in a tricky, unpleasant situation.


If you would react this way to a friend, or even a passing acquaintance, it raises an obvious question: ‘Isn’t it about time that you tried to show some of that compassion and kindness toward yourself?’