Conflict management skills can help you conquer stress and anxiety. Deborah Grayson Riegel explains
Stress and anxiety at work and in life are to be expected. They are even necessary: healthy levels of stress can help us set clear goals, prioritize tasks, and improve our overall performance. However, too much stress can lead to physical illness, poor performance, and burnout. What’s worse, it is also – according to researchers at the University of Calgary – contagious, spreading between people who work together. It can easily be ‘baked into’ a working culture. Yet despite the fact that stress, anxiety and feelings of being overwhelmed are rampant, many of us still minimize or ignore our mental health needs.
In our book, Overcoming Overthinking: 36 Ways to Tame Anxiety for Work, School, and Life, my co-author Sophie Riegel and I contend that we need to treat our mental health with the same level of self-care and commitment as we would (hopefully) treat our physical health. Unfortunately, we have been trained to ignore pain and distress when it is not physical. Physical pain is typically met by others with compassion, care, and offers of help; in contrast, emotional pain is something we tend to hide from others – even from ourselves. If you broke an ankle or were diagnosed with diabetes, you wouldn’t tell yourself to just “get over it”.
But when you’re overwhelmed, stressed, burned out, or depressed, you may be inclined to do exactly that.
Many people try to ‘get over it’ with self-care strategies like eating healthily, sleeping well, exercising regularly, taking social media breaks or practising mindfulness.
Useful as these may be, other strategies may be needed. Many proponents of self-care advocate talking to someone else about your stress, be it a manager, your HR business partner, a friend, or a therapist. That can help. But so too can talking to yourself in a way that’s aimed at reducing the inner conflict, which is often at the heart of stress and anxiety.
In his influential work on the ‘three rules of openness’, Dr Stephen B Karpman proposed three guidelines designed to navigate interpersonal conflicts – that is, between people. His rules can be adapted to intrapersonal conflict, within ourselves.
1. Bring it up (rather than save it up)
When we ‘bring it up’ in an interpersonal conflict, we are addressing an issue or concern in a timely and direct manner rather than avoiding, delaying, or denying that there’s a problem. For an intrapersonal conflict, we are doing the same thing, with the goal of admitting to ourselves that we have an issue or concern.
The benefit is that we are not saving up hard-to-handle feelings until they become too unwieldy or frightening. You might say to yourself, “There is something important we need to address,” to remind yourself that your mental health and psychological well-being matter.
You might add a positive intention, such as, “We need to handle this now so we can show up for our colleagues/clients/families (ourselves) the way we want to.”
2. Talk it up (rather than blow it up)
When we ‘talk it up’ in an interpersonal conflict, we aim to put our concerns and feelings on the table, gather the other person’s insights and perspectives, listen, show empathy, and explore options for moving forward. In an intrapersonal conflict, the goals are the same, just for the conversation we’re having with ourselves.
It’s important to show compassion rather than treating ourselves as the enemy. Kristin Neff at the University of Texas, Austin, says that self-compassion involves three components:
- Being kind and caring to yourself, rather than harshly self-critical
- Framing imperfection in terms of the shared human experience
- Seeing things clearly without ignoring or exaggerating problems.
Self-compassion helps us to feel more socially connected, happier in ourselves and our relationships, and to experience less fear of failure, depression, shame, and anxiety. You might ask yourself – compassionately – questions such as: “What’s going on? How do I feel right now? How do I want to feel? What’s the best possible outcome? What are ‘you’ (i.e. anxiety, stress) trying to tell me? What’s another way of looking at this? How can we move forward?”
Listen to the responses without judging, defending, or attacking. Notice how it feels to take yourself and your concerns seriously.
3. Wrap it up (rather than mop it up)
Once we are done talking it up, we can begin to ‘wrap it up’ with creative and concrete strategies for moving forward. Karpman lists compromise, compliments, and closure among his tactics for mending interpersonal conflict. How might this look for an intrapersonal conflict?
“OK, anxiety, you can have ten minutes of my time and attention before work and after work. Other than that, you are going away.”
Just as with people, resolving a conflict with your anxiety is easier when both you and your anxiety get something you want.
“Thank you for trying to protect me.”
Give your stress a compliment. It may seem a little odd, but welcoming your stress and anxiety allows you to see the upside of your emotional state and how it may be calling your attention to something worth looking at.
“I’m done letting you control my life. I’m moving on.”
Let your anxiety know that you mean business and that you’re going to take concrete steps to control it, rather than letting it control you.
For some of us, a massage, a hike, or a social media break might be just the self-care we need. But for others, the most important act of self-care is acknowledging your pain without minimizing it. Mastering these conflict management skills could give you some essential tools for the critical task of taking care of your mental health.