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Keeping your cool during COVID-19

May 6, 2020

by Dr. Diane McIntosh

 

As we move into our second month of physical distancing, many of us have barely left home, so it’s little wonder some of us are in a “heightened emotional state,” better known as grumpy.

When confronted by an ill-tempered friend, loved one, co-worker or customer, particularly when we’re not in the best of moods ourselves, there’s a greater risk of reacting impulsively and in an equally ill-tempered manner.

When dealing with potentially less forgiving colleagues or customers, it’s essential to manage our responses, now more than ever.

Before sharing some tips on managing the angry or anxious people in our lives, it’s important to keep this point in mind: we can only control ourselves. We can’t control our partner, child, colleague or mother-in-law. For those of us with children, consider how, immediately upon entering the world, they generally turned life upside down. You couldn’t control them then and you can’t control them now. Trying to control anyone else is fruitless, frustrating and also harms relationships.

The way you choose to react to a situation is entirely within your power, including what you think, say and do. It might not feel that way sometimes, but it’s absolutely true. Learning this life skill, even later in life, is not only possible – it’s essential. We must also teach our children these skills, both directly and by modelling the behaviour.

Below are a few tips for managing difficult situations involving emotionally charged people. However, it’s an unfortunate reality that no matter how hard you try, a small number of people will continue to be unreasonable and cannot be placated.

1. Manage your own brain before you engage

When you are responding to an angry or anxious person, it’s essential to recognize and accept that you are not responsible for their emotional reaction. Not owning someone else’s emotions will help you to stay calm and respond with your rational brain rather than your emotional brain.
There’s no “one-size-fits-all” response that will settle a distressed or angry person; you can’t rescue someone from emotional distress with magic words or specific actions. The most effective tools we have are to listen attentively and demonstrate empathy and patience.

It’s also helpful to remember that while someone may be really fired up in the moment, they won’t stay in that emotional state forever. They will eventually decompress, at least to some degree. Thinking this way will help to reduce the tendency to take on another person’s emotional distress, which will reduce your own stress level.

2. Remain calm, which will help you to calm the person you’re supporting

By staying calm and relaxed (which is not the same as being indifferent), you will nonverbally increase the likelihood of calming and relaxing the person you’re supporting. Especially if you know it’s likely to be difficult, try to enter the conversation calmly, by employing passive relaxation. You can also use these tools during the conversation, while the other person is speaking:

  • Take deep slow breaths
  • Let your shoulders drop and lengthen your neck
  • Let your hands and arms relax…stretch and relax your fingers
  • Feel your feet on the floor and relax your toes
  • Relax your face and jaw

Once the conversation is over, take care of yourself by using the same techniques. At the same time, try to visualize a time when you felt very confident and relaxed. The combination of these physical and emotional activities can be a powerful remedy. You can take yourself into this peaceful zone any time – it takes just 90 seconds!

Like all good things, it takes a little practice to make this a “go-to” skill you can employ during high pressure situations. Trying it out several times a day, during lower stress times, can help to make it a natural step in keeping yourself calm during stressful interactions.

3. Speak a little more slowly

If you have a tendency to speak quickly, try to slow down your rate of speech just a little, use shorter sentences and avoid using complicated language. You can show empathy and understanding by paraphrasing what they’ve said and connecting their words to what you think they’re feeling emotionally.

For example:

Distressed person: “I’ve been waiting for help for hours. What’s wrong with you people?”

You: “I appreciate the urgency and concerns you’re experiencing right now. During this busy time, the wait is longer than you and I would like. I‘d like to help you now, so we can get these issues sorted out.”

If they become more aggravated, it’s appropriate to say:

“I understand your frustration. There are so many people in this situation and it’s very upsetting. I’m going to do my very best to help you sort this out right now and if I can’t, my support team and I will work with you to resolve your issue.”

4. Just the facts, ma’am

If you’re in a situation where you must share critical information, it’s essential to be frank, transparent and honest. If you know it’s likely there will be a significant delay, acknowledge the situation is not ideal and offer your genuine empathic understanding of the frustration the person is expressing. The majority of people are willing to accept errors and delays, especially during a worldwide pandemic, but people are never happy about being lied to and told something they soon learn is inaccurate.

5. Our past experiences can predict our emotional reactions during difficult times

As a psychiatrist, I frequently meet people who are highly distressed. This can be expressed many ways, including overt anger, tearfulness or withdrawal. It’s essential to recognize that an individual’s personal history may influence how they feel and react during these stressful times.

For those whose lives have been impacted by significant past trauma or hardship, this crisis may reignite their historical fears or exacerbate their feelings of powerlessness. While there is no excuse for rudeness or bullying, understanding possible explanations for poor behaviour has helped me to cope and not personalize other’s objectionable or rude comments.

In summary

  • Know that you can’t rescue others. The only control you have is your ability to control how you think, feel and behave and set appropriate boundaries
  • Calming yourself and keeping yourself calm will help you and the person who is distressed
  • Show understanding, be empathetic and share facts

Please take good care of yourself,

Diane

Diane McIntosh, BSc Pharmacy, MD, FRCPC (Psychiatrist; General Manager, Copeman Healthcare; Chief Neuroscience Officer, TELUS)

 

A special thank you to Dr. Randy Mackoff for his contributions to this post.