My husband, Marvin, took our son’s border collie mix to the vet this morning. Oakley had not been eating and showed several distinct signs of an infection. We were collectively concerned. He just wasn’t his typical, happy, excitable self.

The vet tech called my son to inform him that to get to the issue, Oakley would need a battery of tests, x-rays, and specialized food to the tune of $800. Naturally, this was stressful news to Chris, a recent college grad on a budget.

When Chris called me, he was furious. His voice filled with anger and frustration. He had lost all emotional balance, ranting that the clinic was overcharging him just because of our zip code! He was feeling out of control, taken advantage of, and helpless to do anything about it. (Ever felt this way?)

When someone you love experiences symptoms of distress or illness, it can cause you to feel stress, too. As a result, you might act in ways that are not normal for your personality. This was not a “normal” personality for my son, a typically joyful person.

Feeling helpless usually comes from an inability to identify and correct the issue (feel you’ve lost control). Helplessness is a primary emotion – one that none of us wants to experience. We most commonly experience helplessness when we:

  • don’t know or understand the origin of the problem
  • don’t have the resources to address it
  • don’t receive the communication we need
  • hold false assumptions about the willingness of others to help.

When these common causes are present, the feeling of helplessness multiplies a hundredfold, causing people to lash out at those offering help.

If you have worked in the healthcare industry during the past two years, you know what I mean. Patients’ family members quickly lose their emotional balance when their child, partner, or parent is seriously ill. Otherwise lovely, well-meaning people become screaming maniacs when they feel helpless. That was what happened with Chris this morning – his emotions got hijacked.

(Oakley and Milo chillin’ on the sofa.)

Having gone through a similar sick-dog scenario four months prior with my puppy, Milo, I knew precisely how Chris felt. I felt those same wild emotions.

What I learned from my experience is I:

  • must practice staying centered
  • can not allow my brain and emotions to get hijacked by events or my assumptions.
  • can avoid getting emotionally hooked if I slow down, ask questions, and discuss options.

Previously, when I got emotionally hijacked, all information processing reverted to my fight-or-flight brain (the limbic brain). Then, when I slowed down, I could bring the processing back to my executive brain, where I could sort out things better and make informed decisions.

So, the next time you have a screaming maniac in front of you, have some compassion. Remember that the maniac is amid an emotional hijack that may have been going on for some time. He doesn’t realize that his rant will not restore his sense of control.

You can help him regain his emotional balance and sense of control by employing these three steps.

  1. Allow him to vent his frustration by communicating all that he feels is necessary, but not to the point of name-calling or threatening you.
  2. Once he is calmer, offer options to choose from or provide a detailed explanation and next steps.
  3. Agree on a plan of action and get moving.

Using these three steps will help de-escalate the emotion and help you both reach a positive outcome.

Oakley has been feeling much better since his vet visit. We think we’ve identified the cause of the infection and have asked him to stop drinking the stagnant water in dishes under the plants outside. By the way, the vet bill ended up only being $325 instead of $800. That was a relief.

Cheryl C Jones

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