How to Deal With Your Short Fuse
The difference between a volatile reaction and a level-headed one could be as minor—and as major—as this [pause] momentary trick.
If you've ever witnessed a rude customer going off at a waitress in a restaurant and thought, "Wow, that waitress is a saint for not snapping", you know that Yoda-like calmness does exist. Sure, it's possible that the waitress is used to entitled diners or has been instructed not to engage. It's also possible they've mastered what many psychology experts call "the pause".
The pause is the moment between a triggering event and your response, be it verbal or physical, says Djuan Short, a licensed clinical social worker and registered yoga teacher in Philadelphia. This point in time, which can last anywhere from a few seconds to much longer, allows you to be intentional about what comes next, says Short, transforming an impulsive reaction into a mindful one.
How? Taking a pause creates self-awareness by forcing you to slow down and tune into yourself so you can collect your thoughts and override unproductive ones. It's a skill not all of us have—no fault of our own.
"Our world isn't giving us the opportunity to develop this ability", says Raquel Martin, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist in Nashville. "We feel like we need to answer now". That's because today's society emphasises immediacy over slow-and-steadiness, and we're often running around on short fuses because we don't get a chance to process everything going on, says Martin.
When you react negatively to a situation, it's often because you feel stressed, unsafe or threatened (this includes feeling angry or offended, which can make you feel personally attacked), says Short. Any one of those feelings can trigger your body's sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for fight, flight or freeze. You might even notice that your heart rate and breathing speed up, your muscles get tense and you start to sweat. This response is a survival mechanism to prep you to react quickly to life-threatening situations, says Short. But bumper-to-bumper traffic and too many to-dos are not life-threatening, no matter how much they may make you want to scream or run away.
"Our world isn't giving us the opportunity to develop this ability. We feel like we need to answer now".
PhD, Licensed Clinical Psychologist
Taking a pause during trying situations will not only help soothe your sympathetic response and allow for the parasympathetic nervous system (the rest-and-digest part) to take over, it can also shift you from "surviving to thriving", says Short. Knee-jerk reactions stem from emotions that aren't analysed or managed, she says. And they're almost always regrettable (yelling at your partner, sending a snarky reply to a friend or saying no to an easy but urgent ask from your colleague). Whereas the pause lets you remind yourself that you're safe in the moment, says Short, so you can react maturely, kindly and purposefully.
So what exactly do you do during the pause? Depends. Everyone is different. But here are a few techniques to test out. Try one or try 'em all until you find what works for you.
- Set Boundaries.
Whether at work or home (these might still be the same place), pausing may mean establishing boundaries, says Short. Let's say a family member or teammate wants you to do or talk about something immediately. Although you might think that you have to answer or address it right away, feel free to acknowledge their request and simply say, "Give me a second to think about it" or "I need to take a minute to process". Stating what you need in that moment creates boundaries with yourself and with others, says Short, removing the likelihood that you'll react from a purely self-involved or emotional place. From there, you can be intentional about what you say when you say it, choosing your words, tone and message with tact, she adds.
A lot of people struggle with this because they worry the other person will be upset or annoyed if they don't get an instant reply, notes Short. But remember, an effective pause doesn't need to take hours or days. In most cases, she says, your positive energy and solution-focused self will make up for any lost time anyway.
- Breathe in, breathe out.
Tapping into your breath to remain (or regain) your cool is a powerful tool. Rather than giving the finger to the driver who cut you off or snapping at your professor for giving you a B, you can practise mindful breathing, which brings you into the present moment and away from the source of your frustration so you can come back calmly and with clarity. Short suggests box breathing, where you inhale for a count of 4, hold for 4, exhale for 4 and hold again for 4, which lasts long enough to give you time to process. Do this for as long as you need to relax and respond like the responsible adult we all have inside us. (Side note: Ever notice "respond" is practically half of the word "responsible"?)
- Talk to yourself … nicely.
Positive—or, at the very least, neutral—self-talk, like "Relax", "I can do this" or "I just need a moment", helps you reflect on what's actually happening and empowers you with a more optimistic narrative, so you can feel less defeated and more in control, says Erlanger A. Turner, PhD, a licensed psychologist in LA. Sure, that HIIT finisher might be tough, but you're tougher. And, yeah, that ice cream sandwich looks good, but the fruit is actually the refreshing dessert you've been wanting. Taking a minute to reset before you give up or give in and redirecting the voice in your head towards a more productive place can change how you move forward.
FYI: Mastering the pause is an art, not an instant tick in a box. Try any of the methods above for at least two weeks, and practise more than once a week before you give up, says Martin. Some techniques may not work for you, but before you move on, be honest about how hard you've really tried. Any reduction in reacting is a sign something's working, she adds.
We all know there are no true second changes in life. But ace the pause and you're less likely to want (or need) any.
Words: Ronnie Howard
Illustration: Gracia Lam