Stressful Situations: Productive Responses
How do you respond when something happens at home, at work or in your congregations that you didn’t predict and don’t like?
The other day I was in a great mood until I opened the mail. There on the top of the stack I saw, the dreaded, Jury Summons. I shouted, “Oh, no!”(or something like that), then felt my anxiety rapidly increase. Intellectually I believe in a fair trial by jury for all, but I’m in private practice and when I don’t work, I don’t get paid.
You can’t get out of a jury summons. Nor for that matter can you get out of a wide range of other objectionable situations: a bad grade, a lost game, an economic depression, a car accident, a cancer diagnosis, a death in the family.
When something objectionable takes place, I sometimes get angry and upset, and can’t see a good way forward. Other times I face the situation with ease and figure out a productive way to deal with it. I’d like to have more consistently positive responses to stressful situations, so I developed a tool.
The goal of the tool, called Daily Life Brainstorming, is to increase one’s ability to see possibilities. It is inspired by the work of Edwin Friedman, a leading teacher of family and congregational systems theory and the author of Generation to Generation.
Sometimes we face passing events that are difficult and stressful. Other times, the attitudes, actions and reactions of people around us are consistently filled with agitation and blame. Edwin Friedman taught that when we are in a hostile environment, we can decrease stress by increasing our range of responses. That’s easy to say, but harder to do.
Often, we can’t control the reality of what is taking place. Sometimes we had little or no control over the fact that it happened at all. We can’t control other people’s actions and reactions, though sometimes we try. However, we do have control over how we react and respond to hostile situations. That actually gives us quite a bit of control, but it’s easy to forget or to overlook the power we have.
Like many people I can get stuck in the trap of repeating negative, self-defeating patterns. My first responses to the jury summons fell into this category. I spiraled into more and more frustration and anger until I told myself, “Stop! This is the time to use your tool.”
The Daily Life Brainstorming tool is designed to get oneself out of habitual, even rigid patterns of thinking and responding.
1. Come up with as many possible responses to the present situation as you can. The point is to get your thoughts flowing freely. Do not judge the ideas. Do not try to formulate the one perfect idea. Silliness is good. It helps free up your mind.
2. Write down all the ideas or create a mental list. Set a goal. Either aim to come up with as many ideas as possible in for a set amount of time, for example five or ten minutes. Or set a goal of coming up with a certain number of ideas, for example, ten or twenty.
My list looked like this:
- Ignore the summons.
- Write a letter to the editor about the flaws of the jury system.
- Show up for the summons as scheduled and cancel my clients and presentations for that week.
- Call and try to change the summons to a later date.
- Call and try to change the summons to an earlier date.
- Reschedule all of my clients to evening appointments the week of my jury duty, and take a week off from my personal life evening commitments.
- Move out of the country.
3. Go back over the list and evaluate which ideas are worth exploring. Even before I reached this step and came up with a solution, I felt much better, because now I was in control again. Yes, I will have to show up for Jury Duty, but Daily Life Brainstorming helped me find a way to make it manageable, and to lessen the potential for adverse effects on my business.
Finally, keep using this tool. When Daily Life Brainstorming is practiced often for the typical challenges of regular life, it becomes easier to see possibilities in the intense and traumatic situations that change our lives dramatically.