Hidden stress

I realised last year that I have two very different reactions to stress.

The first one – the most common and obvious reaction – is to become visibly and obviously agitated. I start speaking about twice as fast, my voice goes up the best part of an octave, and I become flustered and flushed. Visibly and unmistakably stressed. You know what stress looks like. It’s not nice to feel it and it’s not fun to be around.

My second stress reaction is quite different. I disengage. I mentally withdraw from things that are getting to me.

People, even people who know me very well, are liable to believe that I’ve got everything under control. Unless they notice that I’m not my normal happy self, they wouldn’t realise that I might be struggling. They think I’m just a particularly unflappable individual. Hard to upset. Good in a crisis. A rock. All those good things that people can congratulate you for, and wish for themselves.

Disengaging is probably a very sensible defence mechanism, even as a subconscious one, when tired and stressed. I don’t like getting stressed so my brain gives me another way out; detachment from the situation. (That’s one theory anyway. Another would be what people describe as ‘bottling it up’, which is usually a precursor to an outburst or explosion. I’ve never had that explosion. If I’m capable of one, I’d hate to see it.)

When deeply stressed, I become even more serenely calm and unflappable than usual. It happens gradually. I’m a fairly laid back chap usually, so nobody (including me) notices the change. I shrug a few things off. I don’t let things get to me, but over time I can end up letting things slide that I have no business letting slide. Or absorbing bullshit that I should be challenging and confronting. Or, worse, failing to help other people when I should.

Visible stress is unpleasant to be around, but at least it’s obvious. This second stress reaction is much more dangerous. It hides the fact that someone is stressed at all.

Until this, I’d always thought of the ‘flight’ aspect of fight or flight as panicked running away. I thought it was something you’d feel and see. I’d never really understood it as anything more than a literal physical escape from danger. The idea that ‘flight’ can be invisible mental withdrawal hadn’t even occurred to me before.

The first step for me was identifying that there was a problem. I had gone through several months of being incrementally more tired, fed up and demotivated but still pretty functional. Even effective. Eventually, an external trigger made me realise how quietly unhappy I’d become, despite giving every outward impression of being fine. I was the only person who noticed this. After all, I hadn’t shown any signs of stress, so how would anyone have known?

Having spotted it, I’m (obviously) now much better at noticing it in myself. Even knowing that this is something that can happen is helpful. I had no idea before because I’d never come across this sort of reaction to stress. What with it being invisible and all, perhaps that’s not surprising.

That’s why I’m taking the time to share this. Partly so you’ll know that this is something that can happen to me but mostly so you can be aware of it in yourself and in others.

If you’re involved in any sort of leadership, being aware of the weirder and more subtle effects of stress can only be a good thing. I’m mostly writing this for myself 5 years ago. So, earlier-Roo, you think you know what stress is and you’ve heard of burnout but this, too, is something that can happen.

Where’s the operating manual for things like this? In fact, what are some good things to read about stress and burnout please?

I’ll start, with a brilliant piece on depression by @elliotcm

@bignoseduglyguy suggests

@partiallyblind suggests

@gemma_T suggests

@Peter_Ward has written

@boagworld has written

@babssheking recommends:

7 Comments

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  1. I recognise and sympathise with your symptom of disengaging, it being something I too am prone to. For me it’s a part of depression, while for you it may simply be stress, though I find the two to be linked — stress causes depression.

    Sadly it’s hard to fix without taking large steps away from the dayjob, but sometimes it can be forced on you (I had 3 months off a few years ago after something resembling a breakdown) and it you do reach that point I think it leads to permanent damage. Certainly for me I’m a lot worse at handling stress than I used to be. I guess that means to avoid reaching that point if you can!

    I’m currently on a drug which seems to help. I used to take another but that seems to be deprecated now. It’s for depression but also anxiety. Might be worth talking to your GP? Anyway, I hope you find a way to reduce the worst effects and to keep functioning.

    Comment by Peter Michael Ward — March 22, 2015 #

  2. Well put. We are all programmed to get stressed. The problem is in modern life that the constant state of stress is physically unhealthy. The fight or flight red status sends blood to the major muscle groups, shuts down the digestive system and removes fine motor control. This can get so bad that everything shuts down into paralysi. The Pumped up state is a good state to be in to not get eaten. Not great when you have too many work and life hassles.
    It’s the state switches we work on in martial arts. Knowing the state, avoiding the state or surfing on it. Going from calm to action and back again with as much mental and physical force as possible. It’s very useful and very therapeutic.
    It’s easier said than done of course.
    Awareness and mindfulness is one of the things that gets shut down as the stress on body increases. Which is why things can seem so desperately bad.
    It needs those around us to spot and help and support. Just as you are doing with this post.
    I hope all is well. Take care

    Comment by Epredator — March 22, 2015 #

  3. […] Hidden stress – I often wonder if stress is the real route for my migraines. […]

    Pingback by Backpocket | iand.net — March 22, 2015 #

  4. Roo, like Peter, I recognise the symptoms you describe and have struggled through something similar on a number of occasions. In fact, looking back, I can recall such episodes through most of my adult life. That said, I am slowly working on things, learning to avoid triggers where possible and better manage my response where unable. I, too, suspect that there are elements of my work that are less than helpful in this regard but I’m not yet in a position to make dramatic changes in that space. Kia Kaha (stay strong in Maori) in your journey.

    Comment by Buzz — March 23, 2015 #

  5. Thank you for this. It’s something I slowly came to realize about myself, but failed to prioritize – probably because I had a sense of hopelessness about improving it. I’m very much looking forward to reading your links.

    Comment by Lukas — March 26, 2015 #

  6. Things I have learned the hard way.
    If you push through sustained stress by deciding that this too will pass you will be wrong. Inaction just lets it roll. If you don’t put yourself first no one else will. They can’t see in your head. You will minimise to protect others & not worry them. You have to help yourself first even if that’s asking for help and being honest. You can’t be honest with yourself of you don’t know what’s happening. Take responsibility for your wellbeing and educate yourself. It’s a fine line between stress which fuels and stress which breaks. Find it and tell your boss where it is. Don’t think ‘I can’t take time now I’m needed’. Wait too long and the time you need will be far far far longer than you could imagine. Everyone gets stressed. Everyone has cortisol. Well most everyone unless you’re endocrine system is badgered. Stress is not failure. Not dealing with stress effectively and head on is failure.
    Yours the girl who lost 18 months of her life cos did none of these things.

    Comment by Louise — March 28, 2015 #

  7. This was a good read for me because I’ve been through this exact thing and I know I was stressed, but to other people (ok, just one person) I was just seen as someone who “gets frustrated too easily”. At least, that’s what my manager told me. She said that she’s noticed that I’ve been “shutting down but somehow still getting my work done”, but didn’t offer me any solution or help with the matter. She was able to identify that I had a problem, but she made it seem like it was a fundamental personality flaw of mine, rather than an employee who just needed better support from management…which is exactly what I needed in the first place…actually what I had needing for months prior, asking fairly bluntly in every weekly 1-1, but not getting anything except being identified as someone who gets frustrated too easily and needs to change my attitude. You can probably guess where I work from the obvious lack of managerial skills in my manager.

    Comment by Reader in the US — March 28, 2015 #

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