A grocery customer wanted Cambozola, a type of soft cheese, and couldn’t find it in the dairy case. He summoned an employee, who couldn’t see any either. He demanded that she check the backroom and the store computer. No Cambozola.
The employee, Anna Luna, told the New York Times what happened next: “Have you seen a man in his 60s have a full temper tantrum because we don’t have the expensive imported cheese he wants?” she said. “You’re looking at someone and thinking, I don’t think this is about the cheese.”
No, it probably isn’t. That Cambozola enthusiast was probably on edge in ways that may feel familiar to many of us. We’ve been rocked by a global pandemic, polarized by politics, angered by — well, angered by a lot of the above. We want normalcy, we want our personal pleasures back. We want our cheese!
Some people are even more wound up than that angry shopper. There are rows over wearing masks in retail establishments, red–blue political brouhahas, and a general rise in public violence.
The media have provided many a story of an airline passenger livid over being told to wear a mask or being denied some service because of safety concerns — and lashing out at a flight attendant or other passengers. The FAA investigated 146 incidents of unruly or violent air-passenger behavior in 2019, according to a CNN report. In 2021, more than 1,000 of nearly 6,000 cases were serious enough to warrant investigation.
Other statistics bear out the idea that many of us are at the end of our tethers. The Times reports that the United States is seeing the worst surge in traffic deaths since the 1940s, quoting one expert’s partial explanation: “There’s a portion of the population that is incredibly frustrated [and] enraged, and some of that behavior shows up in their driving.”
The vast majority of the population has managed to remain relatively calm, but reentering public space, interacting with others, or just driving down the street under these circumstances might subject us to some added stress. Our own concerns, or the behavior of others, might be more likely to trigger an angry response than in more peaceful times. These tips can help you keep calm under pressure.
1. Understand that you have been affected.
Psychiatrist James Gordon, MD, founder of the Washington, D.C.–based Center for Mind-Body Medicine and author of Transforming Trauma: The Path to Hope and Healing, advises us to accept that we’re all struggling to one degree or another. Even if we haven’t endured dramatic or tragic experiences during the pandemic or other recent disturbing events, we have been shaken.
“Everybody is traumatized, and we have to be self-aware about that,” he says. “We need to understand what that does to us. If we understand that, it will make it easier to deal with difficult or frustrating situations.”
2. Recognize your vulnerability.
Richard Schaub, PhD, a counseling psychologist in Huntington, N.Y., suggests that the last several years have reminded us more than ever of our vulnerability. We’ve been confronting mass death, significant disruption of our daily lives, and any number of other stressors. These reminders produce fear.
In the face of fear, explains Schaub, “the human instinctual response is to protect ourselves. When someone’s vulnerability gets stirred up by the latest statistic or headline or whatever, it’s purely natural and normal to go into fight, flight, or freeze as a protective reaction. These days, we are seeing more of all three. The worst, in terms of public behavior, of course, is to fight.”
Gordon notes that in this time of trauma, “other people’s behaviors that might have been mildly annoying, or behaviors we wouldn’t have even paid attention to, we now tend to focus on.” Many of us, he adds, are also consciously or unconsciously practicing a kind of hypervigilance: looking to see who is wearing a mask and who isn’t; who might be angry; or who might represent a threat.
“Up until a couple of years ago,” he says, “I never paid that much attention to who was in the grocery store with me, or how they were dressed, or how they were comporting themselves. I pay much more attention to it now.”
All of these considerations are important, but both Schaub and Gordon point out that when we’re triggered by vulnerability and fear, they may not be the first things that come to mind — and even if they are, we may not be able to de-escalate our emotional response and put them into practice without taking some practical measures.
“These have to be simple and easy to remember,” says Schaub.
Gordon adds that one of the most tried-and-true methods of calming stress, and thus putting a little distance between you and the situation you’re in, is soft belly breathing: focusing on the word “soft” as you inhale through your nose and “belly” as you exhale through your mouth, with your belly relaxed. This technique brings more oxygen into your bloodstream and activates your vagus nerve, slowing your heart rate and telling your parasympathetic nervous system, which controls the hormones that alert your body to threats, that all is well. (For more advice on better breathing, see “How to Breathe“.)
“Deep breathing doesn’t work for everybody,” Schaub points out. “It actually makes some people more panicky. The thing I use is a simple phrase: my first name followed by ‘let go.’ I say it silently to myself for about a minute. It seems almost too simple, but it works very well.”
4. Think of others.
The golden rule may seem simplistic, but it never really goes out of style. Both Schaub and Gordon recognize that when we are in a public space and dealing with others, we should understand that they deserve the same kind of consideration that we want for ourselves.
By the same token, all of us have a responsibility to make public spaces safer and healthier for everybody, which requires us to move beyond our ego and its concerns.
5. Assess the situation, seek solutions, and ask for help if necessary.
If you’ve defused a fight-flight-freeze response and obtained a little distance and perspective on a difficult situation — whether it’s a long wait, a problem with another person, or potential road rage — you’re ready to take necessary action in the right spirit. And that means seeking a solution rather than creating a confrontation.
Gordon tells the story of his brother, whose seatmate on an airplane wasn’t wearing a mask. “He asked the man to put one on and was told it was none of his business. He could have acted out, but instead he calmly called the flight attendant over and asked to be seated elsewhere. He kept his cool. He understood that having a head-banging confrontation with the man wasn’t the only way to resolve this problem. He didn’t take on the problem himself.”
His point: Do your best to choose creative solutions over anger. The explosive cheese shopper, for example, could have asked the store manager for a recommendation for a similar cheese to try. And you can at least imagine that the driver who cuts you off in traffic is hurrying to visit a sick friend.
6. Talk things over.
Gordon recommends that we come clean about our anxieties, because social support is a critical aspect of healing from trauma. “Talk with your friends about your fears,” he says. “Share your experiences of stressful situations with each other. Maybe you will laugh a little, and that will give you some perspective on your experience, so you won’t be so wound up next time. You’ll see a difficult situation as a manageable prospect rather than something that’s totally overwhelming.”
This article originally appeared as “Practicing Peace” in the July/August 2022 issue of Experience Life.