How to keep today’s tension from stealing our souls

Dispute Resolution Professor Angela Mitakidis offers conflict resolution tips to help ease tensions in our daily lives. 

Dallas Morning News by Leslie Barker

Originally Posted: February 2, 2017

Nearing the end of a recent morning run — one in which, weary of hearing news on the radio, I had pulled out my earbuds miles earlier — I saw my across-the-street neighbor Rick gazing intently upward.

With my ears now open to sound, I knew right away what he was doing: Seeking the source of the sonorous song filling the sweet, soft, morning air.

I had barely a tenth of a mile left to go, but instead of finishing, I stopped. How could I not? Rick turned his eyes toward me long enough to say hello, then, a few seconds later, got that  “Aha!” look on his face.

 “There it is!” he proclaimed, pointing to the upper branches of his all-but-bare tree. “Would you listen to that robin?!”

I squinted, but couldn’t see it. Truth to tell, I didn’t need to. That exchange, barely a minute long, reminded me of this:

Life is found in moments, especially in those that unite us. Not in snark, not in sniping, not in the uncertainty and fear and vitriol that taints our Twitter feeds and Facebook posts, but in those times we find a way to stop the torrents surrounding us.

Roll your eyes if you feel so inclined, because maybe that does sound awfully simplistic. But maybe simple is what we crave in these most contentious and confusing of times, when political differences threaten friendships and uncertainty hovers like a cloud.

We need a way to break out of the forest, a way to feel more human and less snarly, a way to find our souls again.

Breathe in, breathe out. Pause. Listen. Reflect. It can’t take away the outside world, but maybe it can help bring us home.

Often, feeling overwhelmed and uncertain leads people to seek solace in yoga, says David Sunshine, owner of the Dallas Yoga Center. He attributes a recent spike in class attendance to the current political climate.

“As things get more and more heated,” he says, “people come to de-stress and to manage emotions. It’s crazy. More and more people come to learn yoga and mindfulness,  to help maintain emotional balance, to nourish spirits in challenging times.”

As a huge believer in yoga (who admittedly doesn’t go to class nearly often enough), I could listen to him touting yoga all day. Not only does yoga teach us that it’s OK to bend our knees doing a forward fold, but also, Sunshine says, “to honor the dignity of others and ourselves, and to live through kindness.”

Yoga awakens us to the fact that we’re part of a larger world, he says, and helps us develop tools to deal with life’s inevitable changes.

“Yoga and mindfulness increase our resilience and allow us to embrace change as opposed to resist it,” he says. “Meditation helps us feel connection and a sense of relatedness.”

Part of that is physiological: As we relax, the stress hormones, primarily cortisol, lessen and we increase serotonin and oxytocin. Those are “our bonding hormones,” he says, “the hormones of love and connectivity.”

Slowing down is imperative, echoes Lynn McCracken, a licensed professional counselor with Thriiive Practices in Plano. Our bodies can’t sustain that fight-or-flight mode that comes with getting all riled up.

I liken it to exercising, those times when you really push it but can only sustain that intensity for a few minutes. Much longer leads to all but collapsing on the sidewalk.

“People on this side and on that side are yelling and screaming; people in the middle are exhausted and defeated,” McCracken says.

Our amygdala — the part of the brain responsible for fear — is in overdrive when this happens, she says. “If we were thinking with our rational brains, we would realize that there are other options. We lose our ability to use logic and reason when the primitive part of our brain is in control.”

The main function of the amygdala is to keep us alive when there is a threat, she says. But if we can slow down, regulate our emotions, zoom out and gain perspective, we might be able to “take thoughtful action toward the causes we are passionate about.”

Recovering from a pulmonary embolism last May, McCracken had no choice but to slow down. She wasn’t allowed to drive and she was “going nuts,” she says. Then she started what she calls “spiritual practice I didn’t even know I was doing.

“After my husband dropped off the kids at school, I’d go outside into my zero gravity chair and look up through the trees,” she says. “Just that perspective change was so different. It’s so symbolic that I saw birds not worried about anything at all, just getting whatever worms they needed or building a nest or singing a song.”

She’s healthy now but continues her morning ritual. “I don’t feel good unless I do that. I feel a huge difference in how I am able to cope with my day.”

Her clients are still there; so are life’s responsibilities. But her perspective is fresh and energy level high.

“One of the biggest problems in our society is our lack of knowing how to take care of yourself,” she says. “I ask my clients, ‘How do you do self-care?’ They look at me mostly like I’m speaking Chinese.”

But, she says, “You have to put your oxygen mask on first before you can help someone else.”

Doing so enables us to think more clearly about what we’re saying and to be more thoughtful in how we say it. It forces us to pause.

“The pause is the key in all of this,” Sunshine says. “That’s what self-management of emotions is about: pause, breathe, reflect. When times are difficult, we know we don’t have to have an immediate response, but it’s a lot better to pause, slow down, recollect ourselves; to respond from that place of connectedness and inner calm.”

Think ‘what is the best result?’

With social media, not everyone takes that pause. Yet doing so while looking at a computer screen is easier than doing so looking at someone face-to-face, says Angela Mitakidis, a faculty member in the Dispute Resolution and Counseling department at Southern Methodist University.

“You can collect yourself,” she says. “You can ask yourself, ‘What is the best result?’ Because they’re not standing in front of you, you  have the time, and can save face. The brain has more time to calm down and for the rationale to kick in: Let me do my breathing techniques. Let me go for a walk. Let me pray. Let me meditate.”

“I have strong opinions, too,” she says. “I’ll go onto social media and write something and before I push ‘post,’ I read it. Does it clearly explain what I’m trying to get across? Am I opening a door to being attacked, or am I inviting dialogue?”

When our limbic system — that fight-or-flight mode — is in place, we don’t think about consequences of what we say or write, she says. Our defenses are up just as if a wild animal were chasing us.

“It has nothing to do with logic, nothing to do with right or wrong,” she says. “It gets back to the everyday need to survive.”

But, she says, “I can guarantee you, nine times out of 10 if not more, the regrets that come days later, hours later, months later, are deeply painful. Then we’re scrambling to find some way to reconnect.  It’s going to take an apology; it’s going to take humbling yourself, or you may just say, ‘I’m too proud to say I’m sorry,’ and lose this relationship. That’s sad.”

She’s not suggesting we avoid conflict. We can’t; it’s part of life. But exchanges of opinions need not be hot-headed and vitriolic.

Pause, breathe — and listen

“We’re so beautifully, wonderfully different and we have to start to acknowledge that because it gives the person a validation of their humanity,” she says. “Then we can engage: I feel this; I feel that because I’ve afford you that dignity, that respect. You have the right to be different because I’m different.”

It’s not rocket science, she says. Skip the belittling phrases: Oh, please; you’re being silly  or You overreacted. You’ll alienate that person even more, she says. Try using statements to help see their side: Man, I’m frustrated; I need help understanding. Or Maybe I’m missing something.

Just see what happens. Validate, pause, breathe — and listen. Because even if  you can’t see the robin high in the tree, at least you’re being serenaded as you look up through the branches at that blue-sky canopy that covers us all.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *