If you’re like most people, you sizzle when disappointments and letdowns come at lightning speed from all angles. Pressures, obstacles, interruptions, delays, rejections and unrealized expectations can feel like pummeling bullets, and you hit the roof before you know it. Perhaps something your boss or a colleague says or does besieges you with emotion, sending you over the edge. After the damage is done you regret it.

A Gallup Poll reported that 80% of American workers suffer some type of stress on the job. And half say they need help learning how to manage it. Some work stress is normal, but extreme or chronic pressures can leave you with a whiplash, harming your health and interfering with your ability to function. Studies show that chronic work stress can be just as bad for your mental and physical well-being as smoking or lack of exercise. Prolonged job stress keeps defenses on high alert and raises your risk of high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, chronic pain and a lowered immune system.

Refrain from Biting the Hook

It’s natural to have an automatic reaction to life’s inevitable annoyances, threats and hardships. Your DNA carries an evolutional heritage called the lizard brain or limbic system (a complex group of brain structures responsible for the formation of memories and emotions related to survival such as anxiety, fear and anger) that originally switched on at breakneck speed to help our ancestors survive attacks from other tribes or wild animals. The laid back ancestors who didn’t worry about danger were killed off by unsuspected attackers, but vigilant ancestors survived because of the lizard brain’s diligence. In addition to physical safety, your 21st Century lizard brain kicks into survival mode to protect you from threats and worries over psychological concerns: financial pressures, tight deadlines, job performance, abandonment by your main squeeze, and other uncertain outcomes.

You can feel the exact moment when your lizard brain dumps a tonic of enzymes into your bloodstream, making your heart pound. A tidal wave of adrenaline and cortisol surges through you, hijacking your rational thoughts, leaving your emotions in control. You sizzle on the inside or rant and rave on the outside. Although it’s a challenge to regulate your hair-trigger reactions, it’s possible to douse those primitive firestorms and stay chill under pressure.

We’re not powerful enough to fend off unwelcome events. They will slug us no matter what. Although it’s counter intuitive, we might as well use them to our advantage. Kayakers say the best way to escape when you’re trapped in a hydraulic—a turbulent, funnel-shaped current—is to relax, and it will spit you out. But thanks to Mother Nature, your primitive, automatic reaction is to fight against the current. And that can keep you stuck, even drown you. Similarly, the way to get unstuck is to welcome and observe the simmering reaction with curiosity. Let it come and go without personalizing, resisting, or identifying with it. And eventually it floats away.

Although I’m not always able to practice this approach, one Sunday afternoon brought success as I exited a freeway. The driver in a red car that had been in front flipped me the bird. I was astonished at first then a flash of anger rose up in me. The anger wanted me to yell obscenities and return the gesture. Instead of focusing on the woman in the car, I watched my angry urge from a dispassionate bird’s-eye view until it calmed down. Staying chill made me feel as if I’d hit a home run. It’s a wonderful feeling when you can stay on the Launchpad while someone else is blasting into orbit. You feel more in charge of yourself and your life.

Here’s the deal. There’s a space somewhere in-between a frustrating situation and your primitive reaction. The key is finding that sweet spot. Imagine someone scolds you on your cell phone, and you hold it away from your ear without reacting. Similarly, when you catch yourself in an unpleasant emotional state—such as anger, worry, or frustration—acknowledge your knee-jerk urge to react and hold it at arm’s length. Observe it from afar just as you might notice a blemish on your hand.

Suppose you have an urge to yell at your weed-eater wielding neighbor or your carpet-peeing pooch. Find your sweet spot and pause, take a breath, and observe the primitive urge with curiosity as an ancient part of you. As you watch it, you realize the urge isn’t you at all. After observing the simmering firestorm without automatically reacting, you’ll notice that it flickers out in a short amount of time. The present-moment, nonjudgmental awareness of your internal reaction helps you chill. After a period of dedicated practice, you’re able to rewire your brain to remain cool under pressure. As you practice stilling your mind and body under the most challenging circumstances, you start to notice that frustrating situations are less likely to get under your skin.

 Wouldn’t It Be Nice If . . . We Could Take the Longest Journey?

The longest journey we will ever make is the eighteen inches between our head and heart. Automatic reactions such as impatience, judgment, frustration and anger reside in the survive mind. When you live in that place too long, it keeps you safe from harm but blocks you from happiness and thriving. When you take the journey from your survive mind to your heart, something inside shifts and neutralizes your misery.

Are you up for the toughest challenge of all? It’s a tall order. Staying calm when things around you fall apart isn’t easy but not impossible, either. A kind word diffuses a sour attitude. Calm in the face of hysteria has a soothing effect. Compliments reverse aspersions. Heartspeak allows you to act instead of react in upsetting situations.

What if you could love everything that comes between you and your agenda—everything that disturbs the tranquility of your soul? What if you tried forgiving the shopper who unknowingly steps in front of you in line, the driver who cuts you off in traffic, the ingrown toenail, the itchy shirt, your party-hardy neighbor, the ringing phone, the air conditioner on the blink, the swimmer who splashes you during a belly dive, the roaring motorcycle, the offline computer, the crying baby on an airplane, the barking mutt next door, the mosquito bites up and down your legs, or the family member who fails, forgets, or makes a mistake?

One way to do your part to make the world a better place is to consider that a piece of you resides in every person you meet. Every person on the planet who makes you miserable or causes you to react, is like you—a human being, most likely doing the best they can, deeply loved by their parents, a child, or a friend. And how many times have you accidentally stepped in front of someone in line? Cut someone off in traffic? Splashed someone in a pool? Interrupted or disturbed someone? Made a mistake, failed at something, or forgot? Bumped into someone in a crowd? Snapped at somebody? Freaked out over a missed plane or a broken pipe?

We’re all flawed human beings, but softness (acting) contains more strength and power than hardness (reacting). I challenge you to set the compass of your heart by taking one day to experiment with loving everything and everyone (including yourself) that makes you want to flip your lid. Put yourself in the other person’s place and ask, Could I have done that? Then watch what happens inside, how forgiving you feel toward yourself and others, and how much happier you are at the end of the day. The secret to managing your knee-jerk reactions is learning to act instead of react—no matter how difficult the circumstances—by loving everything that gets in your way.


  • Bryan Robinson, Ph.D.

    Journalist, psychotherapist, and Author of 40 books.

    Bryan Robinson, Ph.D.

    Bryan Robinson, Ph.D. is a professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, psychotherapist in private practice, and award-winning author of two novels and 40 nonfiction books that have been translated into 15 languages. His latest books are CHAINED TO THE DESK IN A HYBRID WORLD: A GUIDE TO WORK-LIFE BALANCE (New York University Press, 2023)#CHILL: TURN OFF YOUR JOB AND TURN ON YOUR LIFE (William Morrow, 2019), DAILY WRITING RESILIENCE: 365 MEDITATIONS & INSPIRATIONS FOR WRITERS (Llewellyn Worldwide, 2018). He is a regular contributor to Forbes.com, Psychology Today, and Thrive Global. He has appeared on 20/20, Good Morning America, The CBS Early Show, ABC's World News Tonight, NPR’s Marketplace, NBC Nightly News and he hosted the PBS documentary "Overdoing It: How To Slow Down And Take Care Of Yourself." website: https://bryanrobinsonphd.com.