Stress and anger in conflict
How stress affects us
When stressed, we don’t think as clearly as we should.
Our minds get less flexible. Our thoughts get fixated on the problem – not the solution.
Stress affects our memory, too. In a stressful situation, we can have trouble finding the right words, remembering what we were supposed to say or do. Names and numbers fly away from us. So does theory about constructive conflict. We are in a reaction mode, not a deliberate one.
We tend to react with the full Fight-or-Flight mechanism. Our bodies turn on full alert, defensive. This means we get ready to run fast, strike hard, and think about it later. Other times, when we see no way out, we freeze. That’s a stress reaction too. Only a passive one, where we sort of hide inside ourselves.
Both children and adults react like this.
Civilisation is built on our ability to control these reactions. We try to keep them on the inside – and release the stress in other, more constructive ways. At times our natural reactions shine through in angry e-mails or some slamming of doors, but we are not likely to just storm out off a meeting at full speed, or hit our boss over his head. That is just not considered good manners.
As civilized citizens we prevent some conflicts by general agreement on common rules or guidelines. We try and solve those surfacing anyway through understanding and diplomacy.
Our most important parenting job is to make our children able to take a part in society. They need to adapt to those rules and master communicative and social skills. Otherwise it will be hard to manage the diplomacy part, or keep a job.
However, it takes time, and it’s a matter of reciprocity: positive actions causes other positive actions.
We try and teach civilization, through civilized manners. We teach patience, by being patient. We teach communication, not only through talking, but also listening. Respecting ourselves, standing our ground, respecting our little ones attempts to stand theirs.
And so on. Over and over. We learn as we grow, all of us.
Stress and learning, stress in a conflict
Conflicts are stressful, no matter how constructive they may be. As stress affects memory AND our communicative skills, the result of a conflict may be that no-one really listens to the other party, or expresses their opinions very well. Maybe no-one even remember what was said, or what was to be done afterwards. Maybe a clear agreement never occured. So conflicts tend to repeat themselves.
Most importantly – we don’t learn anything, when we are stressed. We should think about this, when we want our children to change a behavior, to actually understand or learn something. We all need to calm down first. Our children must feel safe with us. They mustn’t be scared, feel threatened or sad.
Few things tend to upset a child more than angry adults!
When we scare children with threatening voices, anger or even punishments, it’s not a very good learning situation. Certainly this will happen from time to time by mistake, or when emotions are running high, but there is good reason to try and avoid those and keep emotions under control. Think of “dogwhisperer” Ceasar Milan says about how to behave around the dogs – “stay calm and assertive”. This works wonders with people too. Without me wanting to expand the correlation between children and doghandling any further than to the confident attitude: it’s reassuring if you seem like you are in control of yourself and the situation. Like you know what you’re doing.
In the relationship with our children, we have all the power. We need to influence them, of course. But we don’t need to be harsh to have influence.
We talk, and act, automatically as leaders and rolemodels – whether we want to or not. Our bad morning mood, our whininess when tired or our frustrated yelling when we are stressed – it all influences our children. Just as much as our friendly greetings, polite or generous manners might do.
We must be the ones to teach our children what they need to know: show them and tell them how to do things right, prepare them for new experiences or changes in their routines. We must support them so that they can practice in a more or less safe environment. If well prepared, allowed to practice and make mistakes they will feel more confident, learn faster and learn more.
Never underestimate dialogue. This is where questions are raised, feelings aired – but not only by you, and not only comfortable ones. Dialogue can be filled with possible conflict, but also solutions. Try and be the adult and not feel too provoked by an openhearted or simply reactive child – because it’s a child! You are the one who can make something good about the situation, because you know – it’s through dialogue real meetings and actual understanding take place. This is where you connect, and really get to know each other. Possibly you get to know something about yourself too.
Keeping emotional balance
Stress that is unreleased can give general restlessness and trouble sleeping. It seems to cause (or play a part in) a lot of health problems. Depression and burn-out is obvious, but allergies and sensitivity to infection also seem to be linked to stress.
We know excersise helps to decrease our general stress levels, and seems to have a key role in treatment of depression. A great advice to keep emotional balance is therefore to exercise regularly.
It also helps not to eat too much sugar, as it makes our blood sugar levels rise, and then fall fast, along with our temper. Healthy food is a good thing.
Relaxing exercises, classical music and a good nights sleep can help too. But if the problem remains with just too many things stressing you out, these things will only help temporarily.
Take a break
Some stress factors are unavoidable. Others we need to keep under control by organizing things, schedule things realistically, and basically say No to some things.
You need a little spare time to breathe and think, to be able to do that. The more tired and stressed out we are, the less time we tend to carve out from our busy schedule to think things through. However, these pauses are essential to make deliberate choises about our alternatives and choose among priorities.
What is most important right now? Some things may not be that important at the moment. Others can possibly be done a little less ambitiously. Some can probably be done by someone else, if you ask (or pay) for help.
And if you feel stuck in a hopeless situation, think things through even more. Even if few of us can hope for a perfect life, we can look for a better alternative, for us and our family. What would make things just a little bit better? Every relief counts, and is a step forward. Perhaps there is a way out? Are there other jobs you could apply for? Is starting your own firm an option? Could you co-operate somehow – with friends, neighbours, collegues or family – to relieve some stressfactors? Co-travel perhaps? Or taking turns picking up the children from school or babysit them for one another so you get a little spare time to breathe, exercise or sleep?
We need to take care of ourselves a little bit too, in order to have the energy to really care for our children.