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
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