Understanding your stress response
When I’m excessively tired or under extreme stress, I start to exhibit behaviours that some people who know me would say are completely out of character. While I usually take my time to make decisions, when stressed I leap into action, often making things much, much worse. My normal tolerance and aversion to conflict turns to negativity and criticism. At my worst, I become aggressive (in a snarky kind of way).
But are these traits really out of character? Unfortunately not. Or, perhaps, that should be fortunately not!
Over time, I’ve come to understand the predictability of how I react to extreme stress. It’s part of who I am, and that’s a good thing. It means I can recognise the early warning signs, giving me the chance to step back and do something to protect myself (and others) from the more negative aspects of my stress response.
Self-awareness makes the difference between allowing the less helpful parts of your make-up to bubble to the surface in an uncontrolled way, and knowing how to spot them early on and respond in a more resourceful way. It also helps you understand the triggers, and how to minimise their impact when you can’t avoid them completely.
Understanding yourself comes with experience. It can, however, be useful to have a model to help you explore what you’re experiencing. The one that helped me was Carl Jung’s theory of Personality Type, as developed by Isabel Briggs Myers and Katherine Briggs in the widely used Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® (MBTI®).
When introduced to MBTI, most people explore their preferences, including whether they focus their energy externally or internally, how they take in information, how they make decisions and how they prefer to deal with the outside world. This can be both fascinating and illuminating.
Further exploration shows how each of these preferences interacts with the others. It also shows the order in which you use the various options. This is the key to understanding your stress response.
When we have little or no stress, we mainly use those behaviours we’ve learned that are most appropriate for the situation. As stress increases, these learned behaviours can give way to a more instinctive, natural style, and our preferred type becomes more noticeable. Introverts like me, for example, become even more internally-focused, while extraverts become yet more extraverted.
Under extreme stress, fatigue or illness, we stop using our dominant way of functioning as a way of coping, and its flipside appears. This is the part of our personality that’s least developed, and so can show itself in a clumsy, almost caricature fashion. This is the part of our personality that surprises those around us, and which can be called uncharacteristic even though it’s very much part and parcel of who we are.
At the very least, the appearance of this side of our personality is a warning that we need to take the pressure off and get some rest, allowing our usual disposition to re-establish itself. More regular or persistent occurrences could mean we need to look at making lasting changes to the way we live.
What’s commonly referred to as a ‘mid-life crisis’ is an example of atypical behaviour being given free rein. Returning to ‘normal’ may be welcomed by those affected by the fallout, but may not be sustainable for the individual. They need to determine what it is about ‘normal’ life that’s no longer satisfying and has triggered the stress response. They can then make the changes necessary to achieving a greater sense of fulfilment or happiness without necessarily ditching everything that’s familiar.
An extreme stress response can be uncomfortable, even threatening. Understanding it, however, is the first step towards making us more resilient and opening up new possibilities for living our lives to the fullest.
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