As stress awareness month comes to a close in the UK, this blog post looks at one type of thing which can cause us stress: irritation.
We all have things which irritate us. And different people will be irritated by different things. I don’t mean things like a skin allergy, but things like:
- missing socks
- bus not turning up
- noise when you’re trying to meditate
- cold callers
- rain when you’re out without a coat
- the other queue moving faster than the one you’re in
- inconsiderate car drivers
- none of your favourite sweet treats left at the bakery
Reacting to things outside of our control
Most of the things I’ve listed above are fairly mundane things you might be irritated by during an average day.
But, they’re all things that are pretty much outside of our control. We can’t control the weather, or other car drivers, or the bakery selling out of our favourite treat.
The only thing we can control is our reaction to the irritation / event.
If you have lots of micro-stress situations throughout the day, by the time you get to bed you might feel frazzled or worn out. Especially if you haven’t been able to factor in time for wellbeing and de-stress activities. (This relates to the idea of the ‘stress pot’ which you can read about in another blog post.)
Irritations, anger and stress feed into our sympathetic nervous system, regularly activating our ‘fight or flight’ response, sending chemicals around our body. In the short term this isn’t hugely bad, but if the body doesn’t get a chance to process them as they keep piling up, day after day, we can have raised levels of stress, which has negative health consequences.
Irritations during meditation
Irritations during meditation can be doubly irritating. Not only are you irritated by an external factor e.g. noise, you can then get irritated with yourself for being irritated! (Or is that just me?!)
When we sit for meditation we want everything to be just right: comfortable position, quiet (unless you like instrumental calming music), right temperature, knowing you’ll not be interupted etc.
But sometimes the reality doesn’t match our expectations.
When reality doesn’t match our expectation
Many irritations are a result of something outside of our control happening and creating a miss-match between our expectation, assumptions or desire, and reality. This can set us up to become irritated or stressed. Particularly if these are things outside our control, getting irritated only makes it worse for ourselves. From a Buddhist perspective, this difference between what we want / expect and reality is one of the root causes of suffering that we experience.
We can control our response, but probably not the situation itself. So we can choose to react, or not. Choosing a different response to a situation rather than your instintive habit is hard though.
How can you ‘let things go’ in general life?
Trying not to get stressed or irritated by something is easier said than done! Especially if you’re told to ‘let it go’ or ‘accept it’ or ‘don’t react’, at the point of rising irritation!
Here are some tips and suggestions you can use next time you face a relatively minor irritation or situation, particularly when it’s something outside of your control:
- Remember it’s probably not the end of the world – can you put your smaller irritation in perspective?
- Try not to over exaggerate / catastrophise – so it rained for an hour while you were having a day out, but the whole day is not ruined.
- Take 3-6 long, deep, calming breaths if your find yourself getting irritated – long exhales and slow breathing send signals to your parasympathetic nervous system which dials down the stress response.
- See if humour can help defuse the situation or how you’re feeling / responding to the situation.
- Write down all the irritations you have in a day, perhaps over the course of a week, and see if there’s a pattern and if you can start addressing some of them. If you become more aware of the type of things you get irritated by, you may be able to catch your reaction before you become completely irritated/stressed.
‘Let it go’ while meditating
When meditating, one way to let go of rising irritation, stress or frustration, whatever the source, is to re-focus on the breath. On every exhale you could say to yourself “breathe out and let it go”. Or you could focus on increasing the length of your exhale to maximise the ‘rest and relaxation’ response.
Whilst there are said to be benefits from sitting with discomfort (physically and mentally), if focusing on your breath to prevent irritation means that you’re not following the specific meditation practice e.g. guided visualistion or mantra, that’s ok. Sometimes it might be better for you to do that. However, if this happens again and again, you may want to think about why this is happening and tackle the root cause of stress. Or stick with meditation practices that deliberately focus on the breath anyway.
Coming back to the breath, in any situation, is a useful tool for helping deal with minor irritations or daily micro-stresses. Sometimes, crazy as it sounds, after five breaths, you can feel quite different and have saved yourself from possibly over-reacting to a minor and mundane stressor. You may have managed to change your response from over-reacting to letting it go.
Afterword – the big stuff
Sometimes it’s right to be annoyed about something – especially the state of the world and big stressful situations.
It can be depressing if we dwell on things on our own though. If something is important and causing stress maybe look for ways of raising the issue with people around you, depending on the situation e.g. colleagues, friends, family, neighbours, local or national politicians, charities or support groups.
With some stressful situations the approach may be to either accept the situation, change it, or walk away. Can you change your attitude (response) so that you can accept it? Or can you change the situation itself? If not, is it possible to walk away? If you can apply one of those three approaches, you may reduce your body’s stress response and over time will feel less stressed.