Rudeness and Disrespect: 5 Ways to Change the Stress Response

Nov 2, 2015 | Stress

This kind of treatment includes when a person regularly: ignores, interrupts or talks down to you; dismisses your ideas, though sometimes later takes credit for them; takes your work for granted – never saying please or thank you; berates and blames you for problems; refuses to admit when s/he is wrong or has wronged you; speaks endlessly at you rather than with you, without any space for your input – I call this filibustering.

Not only do I have clients who have felt the stress of this treatment, but I have felt it myself. In a volunteer position on a non-profit board, I experienced such conduct from a director on a regular basis for two years. My heart still races when I think of it.

Understanding the Stress Response

Intermittent stressors such as disrespect and incivility over time can affect your immune system and cause serious health problems including cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes and ulcers, according to Professor Christine Porath of Georgetown University. She refers to a study that showed a 38% increase in cardiovascular disease in women who experienced job stress. Porath also believes that work-related stress from enduring years of “mean bosses” was a factor in her own father’s death. (“No Time to Be Nice”, New York Times, 6/21/15).

What’s happening in our bodies from this stress? Our sympathetic nervous system is activated – often called the “fight or flight” response – and the body’s resources are shifted to fighting off the threat. Stress hormones like adrenalin and cortisol are released which quicken the heart rate and breath, restrict the flow of blood, and affect our digestion.

With an isolated stressful event, the body returns to pre-stress state once the emergency passes. But longterm or chronic stress continues to affect the body, and this is where real health problems can arise.

In the Driver’s Seat

Dealing with ongoing rude and disrespectful treatment is like bracing for a car crash. You might not know exactly when or how it’s going to come, but you know it’s coming, and you are constantly gripping the steering wheel to brace for the attack.

How do we change this response? Assuming you can’t quit or refuse to work or interact with this person, it’s essential that you learn a new coping mechanism, a way to deflect the behavior.

Your health could be on the line. The most important thing to remember when bracing for the car crash is this: You are in the driver’s seat, and you need to take back control. While you can’t change what is immediately on the road in front of you, your hands are on the wheel and you can choose how you respond.

Understandably, you likely feel that the other person is causing your stress. But let’s try another way of looking at it: you have the power to choose a different response that will help diffuse your stress.

By no means am I suggesting that the the rude person is not responsible for his/her poor behavior which is directed at you. But saying this person makes you react a particular way gives him/her too much power over you. You are no puppet.

Different people will respond differently. Some may return in kind, walk away, ignore, apologize, appease or try to please. If you are the Dalai Lama, you might project loving kindness toward the unhappy person directing their self-loathing towards you! But since you’re not the Dalai Lama…

What different responses are available to you?

  1. Recognize this person as an unhappy, broken person and have compassion for him/her. OK, maybe not for everyone.
  2. Recognize that the bad behavior is actually not about you. Even if you did something that needs to be corrected, there’s never an excuse for unprofessional and disrespectful conduct.
  3. Take some deep breaths to slow down and calm down before you respond.
  4. Bring humor to the situation. Come up with a funny phrase or name for the behavior to deflect what you know is coming your way.
  5. Create a helpful phrase or mantra to remind yourself of how you want to respond in the future.

Over time, as you change and strengthen what you can control, your grip on the steering wheel can loosen and your stress response will change. Rather than preparing for a crash, you can relax into knowing that it’s just another bumpy ride.

Let’s Relate

Have you or someone you know dealt with the stress from this kind of treatment? I’d love to hear other stories. Or simply share the post with a friend via the button of your choice at the bottom of the screen.

1 Comment

  1. Kevin Delaney

    Great article Jen! Very well written!


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Jen Riggs Blog

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Jennifer is the creator of Pathways to Change, a framework for mindful leadership development that integrates coaching, neuroscience, mindfulness and mind-body principles.

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