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May 17, 2022
phrase the last straw in small square wooden letters on a black background

I was surprised to hear myself say “Just shoot them!” and mean it.

That sort of angry response isn’t me, but I just couldn’t believe the restraint shown by the Police Officers on TV who were trying to arrest car thieves who were clearly intent on getting away and didn’t appear to care if they killed someone else in the process. I have a close friend who is a Police Officer and all I could think was that it could have been them! Earlier that evening, I had also been surprised to find tears welling and my voice crackle with emotion as I made a comment to my wife about the unbelievable courage shown by someone in another show we were watching.

If you ask people how they are at the moment, it doesn’t take long before fear, distress or anger comes to the surface and almost everyone has come across someone who appears to be reacting in unexpected or irrational ways. 

If that is your experience and you are struggling to understand what is going on, I have a model that I think will help.

Looking back, one of our daughters had tested positive for COVID that morning so, in my defence, it was the end of day one of quarantine with all the uncertainty that brings. I had also been a part of several emotional conversations throughout the day. One with a friend who had decided to sell up and move because they are increasingly unhappy where they are, another who was waiting for their child to land safely in Germany on the day a 737 had crashed in China.

It wasn’t all bad though. Some of the conversations had opened the door to a number of exciting possibilities work-wise in the coming months – but there were some follow-up emails to send and then a lot of things to consider before taking the next steps. The day before had marked the formal end of a multi-year engagement with an organisation so there were still many loose ends that needed my attention…

All that with the evening news full of Ukraine, the ongoing post floods clean-up and repair, climate change and an inquest into a particularly distressing domestic violence murder-suicide involving young children!

Distress, anguish, anger and rage are not popular topics for posts. Neither is fear, but I think it is time we started talking about our experience of all of them, how we might make sense of it and how we can lighten our load.

When I observe myself or others acting in unexpected or unreasonable ways, I have found the stimulus density model of affect developed by Silvan Tomkins has helped me make sense of it all. It is simple and intuitive, but like all the best models it provides us with some powerful insights.

By thinking about our daily experience in terms of a graph of stimulus density over time (Figure 1 below), Tomkins identifies six affective patterns that can trigger a response in us. Each of the affects has two descriptors in order to convey the possible range of stimulus densities it covers.

Figure 1 – The six basic affects identified by Silvan Tomkins

For example, the affect of surprise/startle is thought about as a high density of stimulus in a very short period of time – from when someone drops a glass in a restaurant through to a nearby lightning strike that delivers an intense flash of light and a loud clap of thunder in just milliseconds.

The affect of fear/terror is characterised by an increasing stimulus density over time that reaches an intensity that we feel is threatening to our being. For example, imagine you have taken a small boat out on a calm ocean for an afternoon of fishing and the sky starts to darken. You look up and notice the huge black clouds approaching and hear the rumble of the thunder. You are concerned as the wind starts to pick up creating a chop on the sea that slaps against the side of the boat.

Sailing yacht in a stormy weather with lightning in the distance

The sky goes dark, the wind increases, and you see the worrying lightning flashes in the distance. Motivated by your fear you start to head back to port, the swell increases as the increasing wind and large, cold drops of rain begin to hit your face. The time between the lightning flash and the thunderclaps shortens to seconds as the first pieces of grape size hail bounce off the boat around you. It is when the lightning strikes the water nearby and you can smell the ozone that you fear you are in terrible trouble ….

Hopefully, those sorts of intense affective experiences are relatively short-lived for most of us. It is when they continue for an extended period of time, when we experience too much for too long, that we move into the realms of distress/anguish.

The experience of living in the affective state of distress/anguish is, I think, becoming increasingly common for many people.

Tomkins’ idea of a stimulus density is that it can be cumulative. Looking back at all the things that were happening for me that day, Tomkins’ model explains why watching a mildly emotional scene on TV could, on top of everything else, push me further above the line and bring tears of distress to my eyes. Later on, the tension generated by the car chase and the threat I could imagine to Police Officers like my friend might just have pushed the cumulative density higher again towards anger/rage.

Part of the power I find in Tomkins’ model is that it is independent of the type of stimulus. The negative things like dealing with the practicality of a COVID quarantine and thinking about the war in Ukraine contribute in much the same way that positives like writing email follow-ups for opportunities and the relief of completing a successful engagement do. The stimuli can come from an aching tooth just as easily as from the whirr of our minds as we anticipate a simple check-up if we fear visiting the dentist.

Your affective system doesn’t care who or what creates the stimulus!

How then can we use the model to reduce our own levels of stress and distress?

One of the biggest sources of stress in our lives can be the behaviour of other people we interact with at home, at work or when we are just going about our business. 

Angry driver.

The unexpectedly emotional outburst from your teenager over breakfast, a sharp comment from your partner as you head off to work or that crazy person yelling at you in traffic who seems to think you changed lanes purposely to cut him off – they can all leave us wondering what is wrong with them and what we have done to deserve that kind of treatment from them?

A lot of the time the answer is, nothing.

They are probably just dealing with a lot of different stuff in their lives at a density that has gone on for too long and feels like it is getting to be too much.  You just happened to be the person who provides that last straw, the final piece of stimulus that tips them over the line and is then on the receiving end of their expressions of distress or anger.

The truth is it had almost nothing to do with you so don’t take it personally.

Tomkins’ model creates the opportunity for us to acknowledge that:

  1. The people that we come in contact with throughout our day might just be feeling overwhelmed by all the things (positive and negative) going on in their lives and that their “irrational” responses to what we might see as the very small things we do can actually make a lot of sense;
  2. Their responses have very little to do with us so there is little to be gained by taking it personally (by personally taking on their responses as another stimulus, another source of stress in our life); and
  3. We can make the choice to not take it personally and respond with compassion and understanding and by doing so benefit both of us by not creating an additional stress that neither of us need.

It isn’t always easy to make that choice and there are a lot of times when it isn’t until well after the fact that we remember that we had a choice.

That is ok though, you can still benefit from Tomkins’ model. In the same way that our thoughts and worries about an upcoming trip to the dentist adds to the cognitive load we are carrying, staying angry at someone (or at ourselves) for the way they reacted helps sustain the very feelings of overwhelm we are trying to avoid.

Remind yourself that it had very little to do with you, offer them (and yourself) compassion for the distressing circumstances life places us in and chose not to pick up that particular straw. I guarantee that you will feel a whole lot lighter.

***

My new book Listening Differently In Professional Life can be found here in eBook, Audiobook and paperback.

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Here is what some participants have said about their experience with me:

A week out from participating in the Samurai Game with Paul Marshall as facilitator, I am now convinced of what I had merely suspected, minutes out from completion – the Samurai Game has changed my life. Having recounted the ‘story’ of the day to a number of people close to me, from the introduction, to […]

Sara (Solicitor)

I have just been reflecting on the amazing success of our Year 6 and 7 Leadership retreats this year. Finding a way to engage and motivate students for two days about the qualities of leadership in a practical way is no mean feat. Keeping 60 boys engaged for that period of time is even more […]

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