We all have those people in our lives that thrive off drama. They appear to live for the next big crisis and if one doesn’t appear, they will create one. Being around individuals like this can cause us a great deal of stress. Just a few days of exposure to stress can affect the part of our brain that is responsible for reasoning and memory. When chronic stress – situations where recurring conditions cause intense stress – can do significant harm to our brain function. Under these conditions, the body will make more cortisol than it has a chance to release and can cause irreversible damage to the brain’s communication center, disrupt synapse regulation, killing brain cells, and can even reduce the size of your brain.
A recent study performed by the Department of Biological and Clinical Psychology at Friedrich Schiller University in Germany found that exposure to stimuli that create strong negative emotions caused brains to have a massive stress response. These emotions can often be found when dealing with toxic people.
There are numerous strategies emotionally intelligent people employ when dealing with people who seem to pull us down. It is important to recognize who those people are in your life and build a plan for how you are going to deal with them in the future. Below are 6 skills to help you deal more effectively with toxic people.
1) Don’t get sucked in
Toxic people drive you crazy because their behavior is often irrational. Unfortunately, we can often find ourselves getting sucked into their drama. When someone is constantly creating drama what they are really after is attention and when we react, we are sending the message that it is an effective way to get our attention. Much like when my children were younger and my older son would pick on my younger son, just to get a reaction out of him. I would explain to my younger son,” if you would not react then your brother will stop. He just wants to see if he can get a reaction from you. “ No reaction means that the toxic person will stop trying to pull you into their drama. If you won’t play along, they will stop using you to validate their position.
2) Stay Positive
When a toxic person tries to drag you down with such negative talk, it is important for you to look at the positive side of the situation. Any positive thought focuses your brain on something stress-free. Begin with asking – What is one thing that is positive or good about this situation? What is one opportunity within this situation? Staying positive doesn’t mean that things are okay, it only means that you know you will be okay no matter how things turn out.
3) Keep Perspective
In these crazy times, it is often hard to keep perspective. Your drama ridden friends and family don’t help. They often encourage you to be more fearful and to imagine what is happening as being an event that would have a permanent and pervasive impact on your life. The reality is that there are very few things in life that will have a lasting pervasive impact. Fewer things are permanent. Remember, “this too will pass.” Look for the bigger picture and think clearly without getting caught up in their emotions. You can’t control others, but you can control how you respond.
4) Be Grateful
There is a growing body of research that shows there are many psychological benefits to being grateful. These benefits include lowering stress, depression, and anxiety, and experiencing gratefulness can improve your mood-reducing cortisol levels by 23%. There is also evidence that suggests being grateful can improve your quality of sleep, cardiovascular (heart) health, and immune function. During conversations with negative people try asking them (and yourself) what they have to be grateful for, even make a game out it. Encourage them to tell you the top 10 things that they are most grateful for today. Not only does this grateful challenge lower stress levels, but it diverts the negative conversation into a more positive one.
5) Set Boundaries
Negative people are bad news because they like to dwell in negative situations. They want you to join this pity party of theirs so they can feel validated. Often, we feel pressure to listen to them for fear of being seen as callous or rude, but there’s a fine line between lending a sympathetic ear and getting sucked into a negative emotional spiral.
One way to avoid this is by setting limits and distancing yourself when necessary. Take control of the conversation is one way to help set boundaries. Let negative people in your life know that you choose to focus on the positive influences in your life. Try redirecting their emotions; when they bring you problems, ask them what they might do to manage or fix the situation.
Understand that some people will not respect your boundaries no matter what you do. When this happens, try distancing yourself from them when possible. Detaching doesn’t mean you don’t care about them, it means you’re taking care of yourself and being realistic about what you can do.
6) Focus on solutions, not problems
When tough times hit, it is easy to focus on the negatives and all the problems in your life. Your emotional state is determined by where you place your focus. Individuals who can get through setbacks are the ones who focus on solutions, not more problems. When you fixate on the problems, you create negative emotions and stress. When you focus on actions that can better your circumstances, you create a sense of usefulness producing positive emotions and reducing stress.
When it comes to toxic people, quit thinking about how distressing they are, and focus instead on how you are going to handle your next interaction with them. This will begin to make you more effective by putting you in control and will reduce the amount of stress when being with them.
Remember, every day new problems arise, but you have a choice to either be part of the problem or the catalyst for a solution.
I was talking with a friend of mine yesterday. As most people are doing these days, we got to discussing the Corona Virus issue. She said, “I was in the grocery store yesterday to pick up a couple of things, and all of a sudden, I was grabbing things I didn’t even need.” She went on to explain, “I saw this man grab several packages of toilet paper, so I did too. Every aisle I was piling my buggy with items I have plenty of at home or in general do not need I don’t know what got into me. After getting home and unpacking, I was thinking, what the heck do I need this for.” Sound familiar? Have you found yourself getting caught up in a frenzy and let your emotions get the best of you? It’s easy to do.
Our brains are created to react emotionally before anything else. When information enters our brain, “man in front of me is grabbing several packages of toilet paper,” it travels to the emotional center of our brain first. Residing here is your amygdala which is responsible for your emotions, I call her Amy. Amy’s main job is to make sure you survive. When the information about the man grabbing the toilet paper hits Amy’s sensor, she sends a signal to alert our emergency response mechanism so that we can fight or flee. Amy (the amygdala) is attached to our hippocampus; this part of our brain stores our long-term memory. So when an event occurs, “man grabbing a lot of toilet paper!” Amy will check our memory bank and discover when people start hoarding; there is a crisis.
Amy will then determine, “If I am to survive, I must grab a lot of toilet paper too.” The reason we are so quickly drawn to an emotional response is the loop occurring between our amygdala, our memory, and our body, bypassing our frontal lobe, the region of the brain responsible for moderating our behavior.
So how do emotionally intelligent people respond in this situation? You have to break the loop. Begin by breaking the connection with Amy (your amygdala). When you see the man grabbing the toilet paper, and you notice your body responding with the need also to grab lots of paper say, “No, Amy, not today.” This will be enough to make a break in the cycle. Then follow by asking yourself a couple of questions. “Is toilet paper on my list of things I needed to pick up in the store today?” “Do I have an ample supply at home?” “If I run out, is there a way to get more paper?” By taking the time to ask yourself a few questions, you are re-routing the information to your rational lobe. When the rational part of our brain gets involved, we can begin making better decisions.
One way to start making this stick it to apply a new emotion to it. Instead of fear of crisis, you will assign an emotional of calm, “glad I picked up paper on Saturday” or funny “I hope he has a plunger to go with all that paper.” When we react with this new emotion more regularly, it will replace the old memory/emotion.
But don’t be too hard on Amy. She’s just doing her job and really wants the best for you. We just need to be able to get control of her and sometimes teach her new ways to react to situations.
On any given day, something can happen to us that causes us to feel frustrated, unhappy, angry. It could be a difficult conversation that we had with a co-worker or boss, overhearing unkind remarks that were made about us or even sitting through a meeting and listening to someone dominate the conversation to make themselves look smart or essential.
When we’re struggling and experiencing confusing emotions or circumstances, it’s human nature to want to push your feelings aside. We wish to deny the feeling, get rid of it, or numb it as an alternative to the struggle going on internally.
We have been taught, especially in business, to repress our emotions because they are a sign of weakness and can diminish our professional image. Actually, it’s natural for us to feel emotions, including fear and anxiety; in fact, it’s a part of our human survival system. It’s our body’s way of communicating to us, and the more we push it away, the more elevated our emotions can become. Emotions are not random acts that interrupt our day; they occur because they are messages our body is sending us. Trying to fight our feelings often leads to more suffering. Using negative behaviors such as alcohol, overeating, or drugs to try to numb our feelings is akin to putting a Band-Aid on a gaping wound. They might make you feel better temporarily, but these behaviors do not “fix” the underlying problem. You can’t manage yourself effectively if you ignore what your body is trying to tell you.
Rather than avoiding a feeling, make it your goal to lean into the emotion. Think of leaning in as a form of exploration and acceptance. It means paying attention to your body and what impact your emotions are having on it. When you ignore or minimize an emotion, you miss the opportunity to process and learn from it.
I’m a huge advocate of journaling. When you take the time to journal your thoughts and feelings, you can begin to recognize triggers that can cause negative feelings. Knowing who and what pushes your buttons is a critical step to understanding and managing your emotions.
If emotions remain unprocessed, then they will just resurface time and time again. Learning how to acknowledge and express our feelings in an appropriate and considerate manner ensures that our emotional reactions flow, and we can behave with greater authenticity and increase our emotional intelligence.
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