How to limit impact of stress/anger from fights/arguments?
October 13, 2014 8:05 AM   Subscribe

I had a fight with a friend through text the other day. It wasn't a huge fight in the great scheme of things, but I got much angrier than the situation called for. The stress from the fight messed me up for the rest of the day, and severely impacted my productivity level. I need advice on how to not have such a powerful reaction to upsetting events, when the reaction seemingly happens before I even have time to think. Details inside.

I've had difficulties dealing with my emotions for as long as I know, which leads to a lot of internal stress. I was a quiet kid when I was growing up, with overly talkative, opinionated parents. I think this led me to bottle up a lot, which has carried over into adulthood. In the last few years I've gained some self-respect and learned to be assertive without overreacting, but I guess I'm still working on that area. Also, I have an almost visceral reaction when reading e-mails/texts that upset me; it might have something to do with constantly getting shitty emails from one of my parents when I was younger.

Anyways, I was upset that my friend cancelled plans for a get-together around an hour before we were supposed to meet. The reason he cancelled was that he had decided to be with his girlfriend. Which is cool since we weren't planning on doing anything too big, but it was last second and left me with nothing to do on a Friday night; I had already turned down an invitation from another friend to go to a movie (since I already had plans at the time with the friend who subsequently cancelled on me).

I decided to text him the next day. I know, I know...texting/e-mailing when you're upset is a terrible idea; I realize that it would have been better to meet up with him to discuss the situation. My rationale for texting was that I didn't feel like hanging out with him since I was still upset over what had happened.

So, I texted him and I told him that I was pissed. I don't think I was too harsh in my wording, I just said that I was a bit upset that he cancelled on me at the last minute. I thought he might just apologize and the conversation would be over, which was naive of me. Instead, he attacked me for something completely unrelated to what I had brought up. Even if I had happened to think that he had a point (which I didn't. I couldn't believe what he was accusing me of and felt he did so just because he likes to "win" arguments), I thought it was very passive-aggressive of him to use the old "well, you did X in the past, so I did Y."

In the first couple of seconds after reading his response, my head started pounding and I felt as if I could have had an aneurysm. My head literally shook for a couple of seconds, for Christ's sake. I'm pretty sure that this kind of reaction is not normal. I then shot a rather irate text back calling him out for bring up something random that had nothing to do with the situation at hand.

Afterwards I tried to calm down. I texted him again and said we should talk in person, since the texting was only making me more upset. He agreed, but the damage was already done and my day was ruined, although I tried to salvage it. My brain just kind of shut down, as if the stress from dealing with the text had sapped me of all of my energy. I had a sore throat that evening, and could tell that my immune system was taking a beating from what had happened. I'm surprised that I didn't get sick. I exercised later on in the day, which helped a bit. But even though this happened yesterday, my mood is still not back at baseline.

I was having a cruddy couple of days before this fight occurred, so I wasn't in the best of moods to begin with. This might have had something to do with my reaction. In any case, I've never handled stressful situations well, but I've been making some progress recently by being more assertive when I feel my boundaries are being violated. I've also made efforts to take a time-out to calm down before reacting to something if I feel like my emotions are starting to take over, which I'm pretty proud of. I'm seeing a therapist for this issue among other things; I've also been on medication for the past six or so months, which I think has helped me deal with situations that I wouldn't have been able to in the past. But yesterday was a signal to me that I still have a lot of work to do.

My friend has a lot of positive qualities, and is pretty reliable in general - so I'm not planning on cutting him out of my life or anything like that because of this. Like I said, it wasn't a huge fight (nothing like "Oh yeah? Well I slept with your wife!") and I don't think it should have upset me to the extent that it did. Looking back, I think I should have just told him that I'd like to meet up to talk about something that was bugging me. I'd appreciate some pointers on how to broach the subject with a friend that you're upset with, without making the situation worse.

Also, I'm sure I'll run into tons of situations in the future where someone says/writes something that upsets me; I can't let things like this rile me up this much. I worry about the impact stress will have on my health as well. I want to adopt a mindset in which I can think "What this person said is a reflection on themselves and not on me" and try not to get so emotionally invested in my response. But I just don't know how to stop my negative reaction from occurring since it happens before I can even analyze the situation. So, I'd love some advice on how to keep these seemingly instinctual stress reactions at bay... or at least limiting their impact on my day. I'd particularly like to hear from naturally anxious/emotionally volatile individuals who get stressed out easily, and have learned to keep their stress-chain reaction from starting. Thanks in advance.

PS: Apologies for the essay; I thought this would end up being a paragraph or two at most. Heh. I guess typing out my feelings out helps me to process what happened. The replies do too, of course :)
posted by CottonCandyCapers to Human Relations (10 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
It sounds like a couple of things going on here. First, you seem to get very upset about small slights. Sure, it's crappy to flake out on someone with short notice, but it happens, especially now in the days of instant communication.

Second, you seem to set yourself up for fights. You knew it wasn't a good tactic to text someone about your hurt feelings, but you did so anyway.

Third, you don't seem to be able to self-soothe all that well. Someone using an immature tactic against you can ruin your whole day.

I would work on the first and third, to begin with. Remember that everything that upsets you doesn't need to upset you that much. Learn to say, "Oh well," and shake things off. It can be a matter of just faking it until it's true...if something upsets you, find some way to lift yourself up, by taking a nice walk or having a fun conversation with a friend or watching a silly cat video on YouTube or something.

You can't control other people, but you can control your reactions to them.
posted by xingcat at 8:37 AM on October 13, 2014 [4 favorites]

In my experience as a fellow over-reactive person, intense physical exercise like running or hitting/kicking a heavy bag is the best way to burn off anger quickly. It's a brain chemistry thing. I see that you already tried exercise but maybe you need to up the intensity?

A good cry can also help rebalance the brain chemistry -- try to find something tearjerking (but not in an infuriating way) to read or watch.
posted by Jacqueline at 8:59 AM on October 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

Two things:

1. People gonna flake, don't take it personally. Even awesomely considerate people are going to flake on you. Everyone gets a free pass. If you know a person is flakey, only make plans with low stakes. Don't rearrange schedules to accommodate them. That way when the inevitably flake, no harm, no foul. Don't vacation with these folks!

2. Plan B. Never depend on one person to be your source of solace or entertainment. If you friend flaked, great! Hit the gym, then grab dinner and see a movie. Or call your other buddy and say, "Hey, my friend flaked, you still up to seeing that movie?" Or order in some food and appreciate having the house to yourself.

So there's that aspect of it.

Now, why were you so upset? Was it that you had a shitty week and were disappointed, or was it your friend flaking? I suspect it was a lot more disappointment about not getting a night out, than it was about your friend.

Getting upset and staying upset over these kinds of things is TERRIBLE for your health, so practice some relaxation techniques and don't let disappoinment get you down.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:09 AM on October 13, 2014 [3 favorites]

Good suggestions here already. It sounds like you sat home alone and stewed about this, which was probably a bad idea. Next time this guy (or someone else) flakes on you, try not to let it ruin your night. Ask the friend who asked you to go to a movie if she still wants to go (or if she wants to grab a drink after), or go to the gym, or go to the convenience store for red wine and Ben & Jerry's and download a romance novel or a dumb movie off Amazon, whatever!

You seem a little bit like you're catastrophizing: you say "I'm not planning on cutting him out of my life or anything like that." But it's not like your only options are "continue to get upset with this guy" or "cut him out of your life." You can just expect less from him, i.e. know that sometimes he's going to flake out. I wonder if part of the reason you get so upset is because the argument feels really high-stakes when it doesn't have to be. (It sounds like he is also bad at arguing.)

I know a lot of what we're talking about is stuff that happened *before* you got upset, so these might be unsatisfying answers, but 1) I think you'll get more mileage out of heading off the upset before it starts, and 2) the same kinds of thought patterns and skills work before and after the fact.
posted by mskyle at 9:33 AM on October 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Actually, it doesn't sound to me like you did anything wrong. It sounds like you frame things in a way that is highly critical of what you do and think. Most normal people would have been annoyed in the situation you described. It's super rude to blow people off when you have plans with them. It's especially rude when you do it last minute at a time when most people want to take advantage of the weekend. And because he wanted to hang with someone else!

I'd try to focus way more on the positives here, and in general.

--You stood up for yourself, not once, but twice!
--You're coping well with strong emotions, you exercised, you're asking for help
--You successfully identified that your emotions are strong but temporary and not necessarily a reflection of objective reality (most people have trouble with this, you are quite mature in your level of perspective)

I think a therapist could really help your self-esteem be a better reflection of your abilities and positive qualities.

From one person with overbearing parents to another--you deserved much more positive support and affection, and much more focus on you as a person with tangibly positive qualities.
posted by the young rope-rider at 10:29 AM on October 13, 2014 [6 favorites]

I'm an only child, and as such I grew up taking all social interactions really really seriously because I wasn't used to the day to day crap that everyone else with siblings and large groups of friends deals with. I also ruminate over negative interactions (though much, much less now) but what I finally started doing to stop myself before getting into some toxic cycle of resentment and distress is to ask myself, "Will obsessing over this fix the problem, or just keep me hurting?" And usually I go, damn it, I gotta just let this go and let the universe take care of it, because it truly does hurt me more to keep fixating than it does to risk the pain of the unknown by letting go. We just can't control anything other than ourselves, and 100% of the time the stuff other people do is 100% about them, even if they insist it isn't. The 100% factor is weirdly freeing because you can have a lot more empathy for people when stuff goes sour because you know you're all struggling with the same stuff and viewing problems through your own filters and of COURSE you see it that way because of XYZ but I see it this way and how can we meet in the middle please? Etc etc. It is never, ever, ever about you. Ever. Nothing is personal unless you take it that way.

So what I'm saying is, I understand why this hurts you, I understand why you do it, and I understand why it's hard to stop. You can though, and it'll be so much better when you do. If you find that intrusive obsessive thoughts are a Thing for you, I can't recommend CBT and EMDR highly enough. Best decision I ever made was getting myself a therapist who only does CBT. :) Take care of yourself.
posted by Hermione Granger at 10:54 AM on October 13, 2014 [4 favorites]

Also, and I mean this kindly, you gotta stop casting yourself as the victim rather than the hero of your life story. Your life and everything that goes on in it is your responsibility. It wasn't your friend's responsibility to make sure you had something to do still even if he canceled on you. All he had to do was apologize and let you know his plans had changed. You chose to treat this as you being a victim situation. How many other parts of your day do you spend in victim mode? Start catching yourself treating your life in those terms and see if you can do the opposite and take a proactive rather than reactive or subtractive attitude about it.
posted by Hermione Granger at 10:57 AM on October 13, 2014 [9 favorites]

You mentioned a few times that you're still making progress on asserting your boundaries, and you previously would get shitty emails from a parent. You might have a lot of bottled-up anger, which comes out in huge spurts when the bottle is opened.

Gradually the anger will get released, and the bottle will be empty, and then you will have a more normal reaction. You have to let the anger get released.
posted by vienna at 11:39 AM on October 13, 2014

Like you, I sometimes have really intense reactions to conflict and criticism, whether it happens in person or through text / email.

It helps me to focus on reducing the physiological symptoms of my reaction. Slow, deep breaths are good. Repeating some sort of soothing phrase is good - something like "it's ok," or "you've got this" or whatever feels helpful for you.

Checking in with my body - noticing where I am holding in tension and consciously releasing those areas - helps.

The other thing that has helped me is focusing on my surroundings and describing them to myself, almost in the language of children's books. "There is the red chair. That is the square red-and-blue paisley pillow on the red chair. There is the bookcase behind the red chair."

Walking helps, and talking to someone I feel safe with is also helpful. And yeah, therapy.

Good luck to you!
posted by bunderful at 6:22 PM on October 13, 2014

The trait you need to practice is called equanimity. I also refer to it as reaction vs response, or being above the line vs being below the line. You need to first figure out what types of things bring you above the line and below the line, and then work on recognizing that you have a choice in where you land. Ways to do this include checking in with your body and reflecting on instances where you overreacted, and how you felt after that behavior. Meditation has also helped me A LOT A LOT.

Here are some ways to shift reactive listening.
posted by Brittanie at 6:31 PM on October 13, 2014 [3 favorites]

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