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Social Allergies: Are You at Risk?

Strategies to help you stay calm in stressful situations with others

Newsflash, ladies: Turns out you really can be allergic to your mother-in-law—or any other special someone in your life whose bothersome behavior gives you more heartburn than your husband's famous fireworks chili.

Recent studies show "social allergens" are on the rise, and just like their biological counterparts such as pollen or poison ivy, these allergens can cause physical and psychological symptoms that become stronger over time.

Truth is, we all have one or more potent people in our lives who grate on our nerves. They interrupt often, smack gum during Bible study, bring their colds and sniffles instead of tasty refreshments to Neighborhood Watch meetings, and frequently leave the clean-up behind. More than just pet peeves, these so-called "adverse behaviors" repeated again and again could test the patience of Job on a rainy day, a phenomenon that social psychologist and communications professor Michael Cunningham calls social allergies.

According to Cunningham, repeated exposure to social allergens can cause emotional and physical breakouts due to stress. First encounters cause a mere qualm or two, but add repetition without relief and the irritation grows exponentially. In his landmark study, Cunningham and his research partners discovered social allergens and our increased sensitivity to them often occur in the settings where we spend the most time, whether it be at home, church, or office. So how do we protect ourselves? Here is some advice from the experts.

Focus on Solutions

"Sometimes fellow workers really wore me down," says "Mary," who volunteered with her church's bustling youth ministry. "When 40 energetic children burst into the room, you have to be ready to hit the ground running. But every week when the kids arrived, the other volunteers would just continue chatting, waiting for me to start the show." Although she knew it was a small gripe against the backdrop of the greater good the volunteers were bringing into the lives of the underprivileged children, the need to repeatedly prod and cajole took its toll. "If it had happened once or twice, I would have shrugged it off, but week after week?"

Experts agree it's the little things that most often get under our skin, causing a rash decision or moment of misplaced sanity (we know we left it around here somewhere). We can inoculate ourselves in several ways. Cunningham says the most popular strategy is to simply avoid the person or persons. This works well if the person performs the behavior only part of the time. Suppose a friend is too talkative at the movies, for example. You can avoid going to see a film with that friend or make sure to bring other buddies with you as a buffer. Better yet, enjoy and appreciate other activities with her instead.

Or you can communicate clearly and directly. But beware: confrontation can cause further conflict to erupt. Patience is a virtue and so is our ability to decide not to react emotionally but take constructive action instead.

For instance, the youth group leader working with Mary, posted assignment charts in the activity room listing what needed to be done and who was assigned to do it. She took it one creative step further and got the volunteers and even the kids involved in creating the charts and ensuring they were followed. Fun lessons on accountability emerged when she gave some of the children the authority to remind their assigned adult what they needed to do and when.

"Everyone felt better," Mary says. "My group did their part without me prompting and the kids got to tell an adult what to do for a change."

And what did the lucky leading lady get out of the deal?

"No more headaches!" she says, smiling. "But the gray hairs have stuck around."

Do Unto Others

But what about the motives behind others' bad manners? Aren't there sometimes an intention to cause havoc and shouldn't that be challenged and addressed?

Turns out at least half the adverse behaviors studied aren't personally directed at the subjects, the research says. The beleaguered youth-group leader's "helpers" didn't necessarily know their lack of initiative was a problem. "People are surprised to learn that most of the time the perceived adverse behavior isn't targeted at them at all," Cunningham says.

The expert's advice: "These things tend to escalate over time. Your best bet is to tell the person how you feel and ask them to modify their behavior if possible. Talking is a good thing." As is realizing that if your friends and acquaintances could make a list of all the things you do that grow stale over time, that list might be longer than you think. Matthew 7:3 asks us, "Why worry about a speck in your friend's eye when you have a log in your own?

If you want others to change for the better, set the good example. Be the shining light to those who need to see the grace of God. Indeed, oftentimes the cure to a social allergy happens within us, not them, notes Cunningham. "You developed the sensitivity; therefore, you can decide not to respond to it. Try to think of the repeat behavior as an endearing trait they have."

Daily Prescription: Think on These Things

The apostle Paul encourages us: "Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise" (Philippians 4:8).

A deep disagreement that festered into repeated clashes with her sister-in-law led Lorretta Ceja, a single mom hoping to instill good values in her teenage son, to think about her own responses. Rather than trying to confront her brother's wife, or expect an apology she believed wasn't likely to happen, she decided to change her reaction to the rash of conflicts.

"The only one who changed was me emotionally," Lorretta says. "Sure, sometimes she still says things that bother me, but I choose to ignore them, turn the other cheek, and walk away."

Instead of obsessing on what she couldn't control, Lorretta thought about what is most important to her: family harmony. The calm she achieved happened on an internal level first. Cunningham agrees that's always the best place to start.

Often the impatience we feel at another's behavior is born of our own frustrations, wants, and desires. We fail to see how much God generously provides for us every day and in every way. In Luke 12:27 Jesus assures us, "Look at the lilies and how they grow. They don't work or make their clothing, yet Solomon in all his glory was not dressed as beautifully as they are." Spend more time each day celebrating and appreciating God's gifts and you'll have less time to be bothered with pet peeves. Give them away, instead, as lessons learned.

More sound advice: To protect yourself successfully from social allergens, compare the bothersome traits with the totality of the person's contributions to your life. Odds are the rest of the blessings he or she brings to the relationship make up for it.

For Lorretta, this means considering the benefits her sister-in-law brings to the family: love for her brother, mothering to her nieces and nephews, homemade casseroles and hugs to family members during times of loss. The bottom line is preserving a peaceful and bonded family environment for both her and her son.

"I strive every day to follow Jesus' example and love unconditionally, not let it get to me," she says. "Some days are easier than others."

It's true. As mere mortals, we all fall short of God's perfection; we're all guilty of doing something that drives another crazy, whether we intend to or not. Dr. Cunningham, reminds us, "Social allergens are merely in the mind of the beholder." Thank God.

Barbara Neal Varma is a freelance writer in California. www.barbaranealvarma.com

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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