We’ve all felt it, at one time or another. You’re cruising down the road, chillin’ to your favorite tunes, in steadily moving traffic, when some jerk in an expensive sports car screams past you, an accident waiting to happen, weaving in and out of traffic lanes like he’s lacing up his Michael Jordan high-tops. As traffic slows and surrounds him, he zips sideways from the stalled #3 lane and he squeals into yours, stopping inches from your front bumper after you’ve nearly been thrown through the windshield when slamming on your brakes. Your heart-rate rises, ever so slightly, and you feel a burning sensation begin to surge up from your gut which is still doing Olympics- grade back flips from your too-close encounter of the recklessly stupid kind.
“WHAT !&%^$!! IDIOT!” you scream, either aloud, if you’re alone, or to yourself if you have passengers. You are in the early stages of road rage, one of the major stresses and irritants of commuters and city dwellers that affects women as much as men. Whether you can talk yourself down or hop onto the crazy train and commence a felony tongue-lashing or butt-whooping depends on how good you are at conflict resolution.
Face it. Just like death and taxes, conflict is inevitable. Where humans go, disagreements follow. Whether of deep significance or petty and shallow, everyone has an opinion that will collide with someone else’s opinion throughout one’s life. Unless you’re a sociopath, you won’t agree with everybody all of the time.
If you can’t recognize what your body’s communicating as your mind bounces between fight or flight, you may just instinctively throw the first punch. If you cannot calm your mind, you cannot control your negative emotions, which is perhaps the most important skill in rationally bringing any escalating situation under control and to a successful conclusion.
We have a mental and physiological response to confrontation. From the initial “how dare you!” or “rut roh” moment, part of our brain starts releasing the hormones adrenaline and cortisol in response to a perceived threat so that we’ll react. Mouth goes dry. Palms get sweaty. Pulse rises. Body tenses. Fists form. The flood of hormones also blocks the neuro-pathways to our brain’s frontal cortex, so we become mentally off-kilter and incapable of viewing the issue from another’s perspective. But that’s not the worst part.
According to a popular and respected site on women’s health, Women to Women, we need some cortisol, but high cortisol levels over a sustained time period can “destroy healthy muscle and bone, slow down healing and normal cell regeneration, co-opt bio-chemicals needed to make other vital hormones, impair digestion, metabolism and mental function, interfere with healthy endocrine function; and weaken your immune system. Adrenal fatigue may be a factor in many related conditions, including fibromyalgia, hypothyroidism, chronic fatigue syndrome, arthritis, premature menopause and others. It may also produce a host of other unpleasant symptoms, from acne to hair loss.” Yikes! Who wants that?
Here are four simple things you can do to help you deal constructively with confrontation:
- Breathe. The simple act of taking a few deep breaths does wonders for shedding anxiety and stress. It reduces your heart rate and gives you time to gather your thoughts. As you breathe, tell your muscles to relax, unclench those fists, unfold your arms. A more open body language invites communication rather than indicating you are prepared for a siege and prolonged battle.
- Lower your voice. Shouting rarely helps, though it may make you feel more powerful for an instant. If you lower your voice, the person you’re disagreeing with has to move closer to hear you.
- Listen intently. This means pay close attention to what the person is saying to you and really try to understand where they are coming from. You can’t do that when you’re frantically devising your next “gotcha” comeback. Nothing can blow a situation out of all proportion faster than someone feeling like he/she isn’t being heard, or worse, is being dismissed or disrespected. Let the individual have his/her say, uninterrupted, and try to understand his/her position from both rational and emotional standpoints. If you need to ask questions, ask him/her in a way that encourages discussion and not like you’re setting someone up for an attack. Also stay away from questions that can be answered with a simple (and often infuriating) “yes” or “no.”
- Let. It. Go. There will be times you just will not be able to agree. You may have given it your honest effort, but there comes a time when you just have to walk away. An argument requires at least two willing participants. There is no fight if you choose not to play.
With people you care about, ask yourself “will this really matter in two years? In five?” If the answer is yes, then try later to get the issue ironed out, because it’s important enough to revisit until it’s resolved. If the answer is “probably not,” let it go.
You may not have “won” the argument, but you’ll be happier and healthier in the long run if you don’t sweat the small stuff. In a case of road rage, in this nation of more guns than people, it could save your life.