Do you know your stress animal?
Every single human being, like every animal, has a stress response. When in danger, our stress response fires and as you already know, you fight, flee or freeze.
Maybe you didn't know you can freeze, but that's just as natural a response when chased by a bear.
In our relationships, however, not knowing your natural stress response is dangerous.
Lions fight. Rabbits run. Deer get caught in the headlights.
If you're a lion, and so is your spouse, verbal violence or worse is a real possibility. Two rabbits will get stressed and run to opposite ends of the house or state. Two deer in the headlights will struggle to talk, move or even look at each other.
The problem gets more complicated when you and your partner's stress responses differ. A lion chases the rabbit and both end up exhausted. The lion eats the deer. Rabbits and deer may not talk for days about simple problems like who should do the dishes or throwing dirty clothes in the right spot.
But no matter what your natural stress response, here's the good news: you are not broken and your relationship is not doomed. In fact, when you know how you respond to stress, you are ready to build an even deeper connection with the person you care about most.
Secret #1: Know your stress animal. This should be taught to every kindergartener, but isn't: When you get stressed, you react, and you react in a particular way.
Are you the angry, aggressive type when you're exhausted and hungry? Your stress response makes you a lion.
Do you avoid stressful or conflict situations like you did chores when you were a kid? Your stress response causes you to run like a rabbit.
When someone challenges you, do you choke, not knowing what to say or do? Your stress response is to freeze like deer in the path of a semi truck.
The value of knowing how you respond to stress is that you can notice when suddenly you're behaving irrationally. There is nothing easier for a spouse or significant other to forgive than a loved one who knows they had a crazy day (or week). But a crazy lover who doesn't know he or she is losing it; that's when all of us run.
Secret #2: Know the person you love's natural stress response. You can recognize whether they get angry, head for the hills, or look down silently at their shoe when things get stressful. It may make you nuts that they behave this way, but that's why this little secret is so important.
When you know they aren't doing it on purpose, you can have compassion for them. You can recognize that something stressful is happening and that they are reacting, not trying to hurt you or make you insane. That's when you can ask, "How can I help?"
Secret #3: Have a plan for stepping back, both personally and as a couple. Our brains will only stop the flood of stress chemicals when they know that we are thinking clearly. Without thinking clearly, the brain wants you out of a situation it deems worthy of a stress response. That's why you react.
You stop the reaction by knowing what you need to do to slow down when you feel stress. Now, if there is a bear: you should feel stressed and react. Most situations in our romantic relationships, however, do not really need to cause the drama they often do.
If there is no bear, when you feel your stress response turn on, or your partner turns your stress response on, be ready to count to 10, breathe, pause, or listen. All of these simple methods allow you to step back, which makes managing the stress possible.
As a couple, talk about how to handle the moments when you are both totally overwhelmed before your stress responses take over.
You can't connect when you're already thinking about how to de-map the other person. You can, on the other hand, have a plan for when you feel like you never want to see the other person again. That feeling is your stress response. Whether you choose to wait an hour, go for a walk or exercise, or eat a bowl of ice cream, you need some way to let your brain know that whatever seemed like a problem is under control.
These secrets really shouldn't be a surprise and they really aren't that hard to make a part of our daily awareness. We all become animals when our stress response fires. Paying attention to little ways we can make our relationships happier and even more precious helps us fall in love all over again.
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