Tired of others dumping their frustration on you? This way you avoid taking it on board
You may know how to calm your own stress levels, but what if you’re surrounded by other people’s dramas and it’s getting to be too much?
“If you listen to people’s stress, you may end up absorbing it yourself,” says Ammanda Major of the consulting organization Relate.
Read on for how best to cope in different situations…
Remember, not all stress is bad
First of all, it’s normal to feel stressed at times. “We tend to think that if our life is functioning perfectly, we would never feel stressed or anxious, but actually these feelings are a normal part of everyday life,” says Ammanda.
If you feel constantly stressed, it can lead to problems like trouble sleeping, low energy levels, intestinal problems and high blood pressure.
“The most important thing is to recognize when stress is getting in the way of making sensible decisions,” says Ammanda.
Cope when someone causes you their stress
Meeting a person who is in turmoil can be really upsetting. “Take a breath and notice what’s happening,” says Ammanda.
“Often the people around you are very stressed and you pick it up without realizing it. Suddenly you also feel stressed and out of control.”
Whoever started this emotional turmoil, Ammanda recommends counting to 10.
“Give yourself a moment to breathe instead of reacting – it can be very useful.”
Then ask yourself a few questions about the situation. Your answers depend on the context and what the person means to you:
- Whose stress is this? Who does it really belong to?
- Should I also be feeling stressed or worried about what happened?
- Am I stressed about someone or am I stressed myself?
- Do I have to participate? If so, do I need to respond quickly or should I take a moment to reflect?
- To what extent do I want to accept this person’s stress level?
Navigating among strained friends
When a friend shifts their stress onto you, think about how one-sided the relationship is or has become.
“If they bombard you with all that stuff they’re upset about every time you see them, they’ll probably feel a lot better that they’ve got someone’s undivided attention.”
But if you’re thinking, “I feel drained.” “This is the second time they’ve bothered me this week,” ask yourself, “Is this friendship really working for me?” says Ammanda.
In return, she suggests trying to share some of your stresses while making sure the other person steers the conversation back to themselves.
“One reason people keep dumping is because they don’t feel heard,” she explains. “They might not really be heard because they’re picking up signals, but sometimes you can never hear them enough.”
If you feel like you have a good friendship, you should feel able to balance the imbalance. “Hopefully that gives you a chance to say, ‘May I ask you to stop?’ I had a terrible day too. I was hoping I could share my stress with you. I feel like it’s a bit one-sided at the moment. What do you think?’ They may have different opinions. In that case, you should think about how much time you really want to spend with them,” adds Ammanda.
Dealing with a hunted family member
Much like friends, family is about feeling able to challenge the unspoken rules and roles that you may have taken on without realizing it. Maybe you’re “the listener” — the one everyone complains to after a fight — or the one they lash out at when things don’t go their way.
“This is where counseling can help you understand yourself a little better, how you do things in relation to other people, and whether you want that to be different,” Ammanda says.
One role you may have inadvertently landed in is that of “fixer”. Ammanda says, “Then everyone goes to you because they hope for a solution.”
However, chances are that you will be used as a stress relief platform. “When people tell us about stressful things, we want to give advice, and that’s okay. But what often happens is that two weeks later you are faced with the same problem again.
“You could say, ‘We talked about it and I suggested X, Y and Z. Did you do this?’ And they might say, ‘No, I didn’t,’ and then tell you the whole story again.”
Ammanda says you have to choose your battles and accept that even if you feel like you have to fix something, it’s not in your power to do it.
She adds, “Maybe it’s best to say, ‘May I stop you there?’ I don’t think I can help you. I’ve already said my part.’”
Management of an overwrought boss
At work there is a hierarchy to contend with. “If your boss is very stressed, it might actually be part of your job description to take steps to help them be less stressed,” Ammanda says. “It can work well to come up with a problem and then quickly get the solution.
“But when your boss overwhelms you with his mood, it can become more difficult. Ideally, you would feel comfortable saying something like, “I’m feeling really stressed because I don’t feel like I’m getting enough support.” There aren’t enough resources. Can we please talk about it?’ But that is not always possible.
“There is a power imbalance in a work situation. Your boss inherently has more power than you because he is your manager,” says Ammanda. “But if you feel you’re being treated unfairly, you can make a grievance at work.” For more information, go to Gov.uk/raise-grievance-at-work.
Looking for an anxious partner
Is stress creeping into your relationship? “Ask your partner about it,” Ammanda says.
“Instead of saying, ‘You’re stressed and I’m stressed,’ it’s important to use ‘I’ statements such as, ‘I’m worried about you because I noticed you’re really stressed seem.’ Is there anything you’d like to talk about?’”
Avoid being overly soothing. “People say, ‘Don’t worry about it, it’s okay,’ but it might not be okay for someone to wait for health test results,” Ammanda says.
“Instead, say, ‘I wonder if you’re feeling stressed about these tests.’ Can we talk about this?’ Then instead of trying to “fix” their stress, invite them to join the conversation about it or decline it.”
IF IT IS ABSOLUTELY NOT YOUR RESPONSIBILITY
In abusive situations, the advice is different.
“When abusers control relationships under duress, they often create stressful situations and tell their partner it’s their fault. That requires a different intervention, because the blame lies solely with the perpetrator,” says Ammanda.
“Leaving these relationships is very difficult and often dangerous. At Relate, we always recommend seeking professional help.”
Contact the free 24-hour National Domestic Abuse Helpline on 0808 2000 247 and visit Refuge for support at Nationaldahelpline.org.uk.
Illustration: Getty Images Visit Relate.org.uk