Breaking the Vicious Cycle of Stress and Conflict
The last few months have been busy. I’ve had conflicts to mediate, blogs to keep up with, family and friends to visit, classes and workshops to plan and facilitate, kittens to adopt. The rushing and stress has reminded me that as I get busy, I feel less empathy, have less patience, and take less time to make sure I am acting and speaking in ways that improve rather than harm relationships in my life. My emails sound a bit more surly and clipped. Resentment sneaks into my voice and behaviour when someone needs something from me. Does this sound familiar? I am not alone in this. People generally have a hard time empathizing, connecting with others, and listening carefully in times of stress.
It can be a vicious cycle. Stress and busyness increase and even create new conflict, and conflict increases stress and busyness. At best, conflict saps our energy and distracts us from other things we need to do. At worst, it can involve meetings with lawyers, lengthy court processes, time off from work, school, or other commitments, and many hours or even years of raging, crying, and confusion (according to Statistics Canada, around 50% of divorce and separation cases that go through the courts take longer than a year to settle).
As hard as it is, when conflict coincides with busyness and stress, the best thing you can do is take the time to relax, reflect on your situation, and connect with people who can offer support.
You might be thinking, “That would be amazing, but how do you expect me to slow down enough to deal with something as stressful as conflict when I’m already sinking under expectations and responsibilities?” Believe me, I totally get that feeling. Here are a few steps that might feel possible, even in times of overwhelming busyness.
Avoid trying to resolve the conflict (at least temporarily).
Periods of intense stress are not the best time to address a conflict. When we are under stress, our minds are focused on survival, and anything challenging or upsetting is likely to be perceived as a threat. Try to put off a difficult discussion until you have the time to give it the attention, energy, and thought it deserves. Stress often leads us to think a situation is more urgent than it is. But even when it is urgent or time-sensitive, it is usually possible to postpone a few minutes, hours, or even days to take time to calm down and reflect. The key is to make sure the other person knows you are not disappearing or brushing them off. Be clear that you need some time to think, and if possible, let them know when you hope to be able to address the issue.
Find something small that you can STOP doing or put off.
When we’re stressed, we sometimes feel that everything needs to Happen. Right. Now. That is usually not true. There is probably something on your list that you could do tomorrow, in a week, in a month, or not at all. Start with the smallest thing you can think of. Do you need to call someone back if you know they will want to chat, or could you send them a text or email? How important is it, really, to sweep the floor or take out the recycling? That work task you have put off for months: can it wait a few more weeks? Is there an easier way to get the necessary things done? Maybe it’s OK to make a sandwich or order pizza a few more times this month than you usually would. When you find something you don’t really need to do, take that extra time to laugh or cry with a friend, do something physical, or reflect on what else might help you get through the hard times.
Find something small that you can START doing to feel some progress on the important stuff.
Sometimes when we’re overwhelmed by everything that needs to happen, we get lost in the enormity of what we need to accomplish. We find ourselves an hour later, sitting on the couch and staring at the wall, with less time, and the same amount to do. While breaks (including mindless ones) can be very important in times of stress, they help only if they leave us feeling rested and able to face the chaos. When frozen in the face of an impossible list of tasks or a situation that feels too enormous to address, try to find one or two small things that feel manageable. Even if that’s as far as you get, it will feel better than doing nothing. Or if you can’t do that, then go back to the previous point, and give yourself the time off to relax and get your mind and energy together.
Ask for support.
Who are the people who would give you a hand if they knew you were struggling? Is there a friend or family member who might bring you some leftovers, go to a difficult appointment with you, or be a supportive listener? Do you have a trusted neighbour who might be willing to walk your dog, or pick your kid up at school in a pinch? Maybe there is a co-worker who would be willing to take on a task in exchange for a similar favour in the future. Is it possible to talk to your boss about workload, or ask your teacher for an extension? Is there a legal clinic, union steward, help line, or health care provider who can help you get something done, or give you the information you need? There is probably someone who could help, if you are able to ask. For many of us, however, asking for help is not a small step, but actually a huge challenge that brings up feelings of failure or makes us feel like a burden. If that’s the case, maybe the next point will help.
Remember you are not alone and we live in a very stressful world.
You are not the only one who feels this way. It’s easy to blame ourselves for “not handling stress better.” We assume that everyone else is living a happier, more efficient, and less conflicted life. In actual fact, a huge number of people in Canada experience levels of stress high enough to have a long-term impact on their health and wellbeing. We live in a time of precarious work and increasing workloads, increasing cost of living, and decreased access to social supports. These social and economic realities are huge stressors for many people and families, and are often a factor in serious relationship conflict and divorce. It can be helpful to remember that having trouble coping is not your fault, nor is it a sign that you don’t have your stuff together. The more you can remember that feeling overwhelmed, grumpy, and exhausted is normal in stressful situations, the more you can do the things that will help you to get through the worst of it with empathy for yourself and the people in your life.