5 common responses to stress
It’s safe to say that I’m not a morning person. I prefer to be gently eased out of my slumber. But this a.m. I bolted out of my bed at the sound of my dog Zack frantically barking and scurrying between windows at the entrance of our home. My first thought was Shoot…gotta shut him up before he wakes the whole household! Zack likes to bark, it’s true. But this morning a racoon dared waddle across our lawn right under his nose. And as I got to the bottom of the stairs, we kept our eyes on the perpetrator together, like sentinels, to make sure somehow (??) that he didn’t backtrack. Zack’s vigilance at the window was to be expected; he feels a duty to keep our household safe. But were we ever in any danger? Nah… but in his little mind we were, and there was no way that rodent was getting close to home again. It was the timing that put me into action, made me vigilant around my own set of priorities. Had it been 3p.m. it may have just been white noise to me. The early hour resulted in a vigilant response to protect my kids’ sleep, bolting up, running down, and shushing Zack emphatically. Good mom? Nah…twenty years in—more likely I qualify as a little bit neurotic, possibly scarred by years of sleeplessness. Whatever the case, I was on autopilot, just like my dog, neutralizing the perceived threat and we shared a moment, overfunctioning together.
We all live with anxious responses (an internal alarm system) to our circumstances, some of us more than others. Some of this is nature, genetics. Some of this is nurtured. We learn to be alarmed by the things that our families find alarming. Or we learn from our experiences and react to them, forming strategies; particularly when we get hurt. We are all motivated to stay safe, comfortable. Underneath it all we strive for peace. Peace is acquired in different ways. Financially we like security, interpersonally we like to be liked, professionally we like to be respected and productive, physically we need to feel and look good, spiritually we want purpose and meaning, and emotionally…to be honest, I’d say we are a little lost with this one these days—but let’s call it less stressed.
Peace is a custom fit goal. My ‘safety’ this morning meant keeping my kids asleep in the early hours. As a mom, their good is often connected to my feelings and sense of wellbeing. I’m sure you’ve heard it said, a parent is only as happy as their unhappiest child. This was hardwired into me when my children were babies. If they were short on sleep, my day was a gong show. And so, as a young-ish sleep-deprived mom, my children’s sleep became a priority. I was once so exhausted that I desperately shushed a McDonald’s drive-thru attendant because the pitch and volume of her voice threatened to wake my finally sleeping child in his car seat. Could she tell I loved Jesus, probably not. Not my best moment, but my motivation was My peace (and the assumption that I’d refuel as a result). I’ve come to understand that when demand outweighs resource, you feel stress. Sleeplessness taxed my resources as a mom.
One of my favourite authors, Harriet Lerner, taught me that we respond to stress in 5 ways. This list is not exhaustive, but my hope is that it can add some interpersonal insight to your life, help you find alternatives. What follows are behavioural strategies that make us feel safe temporarily in response to perceived threat.
First, we overfunction; we kick it into high gear. For some of us this means we micro-manage, others deep clean the kitchen sink, work longer hours, or rant at our child for biting her brother. The motto is more, and make sure—louder, safer, longer, better, cleaner, make it look really good. Just make sure that metaphorical racoon keeps running down that road and doesn’t turn back.
Secondly, we underfunction. It may look something like ‘vegging’ on the couch for hours on end, showing up late for work, procrastinating, mindlessly scrolling on Instagram for hours while homework, housework, projects and deadlines go ignored. Sometimes we attempt to find peace by letting others decide where they’d like to eat or deferring to others’ opinions or preferences (some people like calling it being easy-going;)). Risk aversion is our top priority.
A third response to anxiety is blame. It’s characterized by a preoccupation with the culpability of others, calling out their imperfections as a response to hurt, and seeing others as the barrier to my peace. If it weren’t for you, I’d be happy. It has a way of making us feel comforted in the moment by absolving us of responsibility. If we’ve done badly in an interview, they were expecting too much. Or if we’ve been called out for something at work, they are unreasonable and impossible to please! Or it can sound like, if you’d stop buying ice cream maybe I’d have a better chance at success with my diet. You get the picture.
Gossip is the fourth response to anxiety. This happens at work, school, church, and home, anywhere you find more than one person in a relationship. To defuse some perceived threat, we like to align with others and our mission is agreement. If I can find someone to see things the way I see it, I can feel better about the disconnect in that other relationship. Did you see what just happened to me…can you believe it? They’ve never liked me; I’ll never have a chance at that promotion. What do you think, am I right? Complaining to others about another who’s hurt me or betrayed me or stands in the way of my comfort is a common anxious response.
And lastly, we respond to anxiety with avoidance. If I were to size up the biggest default of all 5 responses, this one is the winner. Avoidance is the ultimate in passivity and neglect. We can avoid someone physically and make every effort to not cross paths, or emotionally when we avoid making or returning a phone call or put off a promise to get-together. This may provide a temporary sense of safety. It’s easier, so we choose it. In sessions, I hear I don’t like confrontation, a lot. As a side note, it’s often the case that there has been no actual lived experience with confrontation—just bearing witness to confrontation gone bad. This is the fuel to avoidance’s fire. An important consideration: in avoiding a potential catastrophic confrontation we’ll find that repair, reconciliation, and growth get thrown out with the bathwater.
If we hold a biblical worldview, healthy connection is a priority. Jesus died to restore us to relationship with His Father, so it stands to reason this would be part of the church DNA. As Christ followers we are called to truth, love, and grace, in relationship. It’s important to understand a little about what’s going on ‘under the hood’ so we can proactively take responsibility for our responses. Self-awareness is critical to managing relationships well. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness gentleness and self-control are what is meant to exemplify our lives. They are also great anxiety wranglers. In its ambition to acquire safety, anxiety can overreach, become dysregulated, it enflames disagreement and hijacks our would-be Christ-like responses. There is merit to pausing to notice my responses and another’s to me. By implication, can I soften or re-direct my response more thoughtfully and appropriately? A compassionate stance and appreciation for another’s experience can help me put my anxious response in check, or possibly leverage some kindness, and with that good rapport. Paying attention to our interactions with others is necessary is cultivating life-giving connections, something we are meant to have in the church.