Identifying my reactions to stress

One of the topics we discussed at last week’s Less Wrong Toronto meetup was the fight-or-flight response and reactions to stress in general. In addition to fight-or-flight, researchers have also identified a tend-and-befriend approach that focuses on social support. To follow up on that, I want to reflect on how I experience and respond to stress so that I can recognize it faster and counteract it or work with it more effectively.

What does stress feel like, and how do I respond?

A quick list of symptoms that are my usual ways to experience stress:

  • Mental flightiness
  • Forgetfulness
  • Misplaced things
  • Distraction
  • A perceived need to multi-task
  • Nightmares or mental rehearsals (also consciously)
  • General fatigue
  • Furrowed brow, frowns
  • Shallow breathing
  • Tears
  • A flushed face
  • Tense muscles, particularly in the shoulders
  • Raised heart rate
  • Crossed legs
  • Cold hands
  • Slouching
  • Hunger or thirst
  • Cancellation of social interactions

A few quick ways I modulate my stress levels:

  • Hugs, lots and lots of them
  • Drawing mindmaps
  • Writing (particularly lists of what I need to do or reasons why I’m stressed)
  • Mental rehearsals and planning
  • Cuddling the cats
  • Having a warm beverage (hot chocolate, tea, hot water)
  • Biking or walking
  • Body posture adjustments
  • Breathing
  • Napping
  • Getting a few tasks done

General categories of stress and how I respond to them:

When I feel spread too thin: When I’m stressed because I’m trying to do too many things, my mind flits around. I move quickly. I often overlook or forget things, or get distracted in the middle of something. I  feel a little frayed at the edges. Shallow breath and slouching get in the way of good thinking, so I try to consciously counteract that. I get less sleep because I stay up late and then wake up to an alarm. Sometimes I have nightmares about forgetting something important or being late for a presentation, but I’ve learned to accept those nightmares as useful rehearsals.

When I catch myself forgetting things or worrying about juggling responsibilities, I make a list of my commitments and what I need to do. This helps me worry less. I prioritize my appointments and tasks, cutting back as much as needed and sometimes saying no. If there are some things I just have to do, I sometimes spend time thinking about the worst-case scenario and how things will still be okay. I also think about a couple of likely scenarios that could go wrong to see if I can take any precautions. I recover from stress faster if I pick one thing to focus on and make significant progress on it than if I spin my wheels.

When I feel afraid: One time, I was in fitness class and the exercise was to leapfrog over our partner. Since I had sprained my ankle a few weeks back, the memory of pain was still strong, and I didn’t feel up to high-impact exercises. I’d modified the other exercises to be less stressful, but there isn’t really a way to downscale jumping over someone and landing. I couldn’t help but imagine the pain from my ankles giving way. I caught myself starting to hyperventilate, and I tried not to cry. The instructor noticed my hesitation and urged me forward.

I knew that I was having a possibly unreasonable reaction to the exercise, so after a few false starts, I eventually managed to do the first one. I figured that if I landed badly and hurt myself, it would be a temporary problem, but letting the memory of a minor accident stop me from doing things that are good for me would be more of a long-term problem. It was really hard to push myself to do the first one, and it got a little bit easier with each one I did. Fortunately, after a few rounds, W- (who was my partner for the exercise) noticed my discomfort and bent lower, making it easier. Each time I went over, I reminded myself that I had just finished another round without getting injured, so my lizard brain should probably worry less.

Other times, I’m fine with leaving an irrational fear in place. For example, I really don’t like things that are poisonous. This makes beaches rather stressful for me: jellyfish, sea urchins, fish, shells… I could probably work on getting over that, but it’s been fine so far.

When I doubt myself: Sometimes I worry that I’m not going to be able to make something as awesome as I want to, particularly when I’ve made a professional commitment to do so. Other times, I wonder whether I’m going down the right path, or I feel the impostor syndrome kicking in.

I usually stick with what I’m doing, knowing that the feeling of mediocrity is part of the experience of learning. Sometimes I alternate that with a high-satisfaction activity like coding. Reviewing positive feedback from other people also helps me get over this hump.

When I don’t have enough control: I’ve gotten stressed out in situations where I didn’t have a clear escape or where I’m not sure what’s going on. For example, long road trips where I couldn’t just leave, international flights with talkative seatmates, awkward street conversations with people who try to chat you up… My flight response kicks in big time. If I really can’t get out of there, I tend to mentally withdraw.

When I feel angry: I rarely get angry. I feel something a little like anger or annoyance when people make ageist or sexist remarks, even self-deprecating ones (“I’m too old for this!”). I also feel a pull to act when I perceive people as unreasonable or unfair to others, or when I run into systems that are getting in my way. When I do, I tend to feel it as an intense focus on disassembling or fixing something, like a bug in the software of life that can be debugged and corrected. I usually respond with a quick remark pointing out the behaviour. If I think I can influence it through action, I may sit down and plan my approach.

When I feel embarrassed: Did I make a technical mistake that sent lots of e-mail to people? Did I accidentally delete lots of data? Sure-fire ways to feel terrible and time-stressed. The important thing here is to not make things worse, which is why I try to slow down and double-check what I’m going to do in order to fix things. Then I work on figuring out how to not end up in the same kind of situation again. (Ex: phone)

What does not being stressed feel like?

When I feel relaxed, I:

  • can focus on a thought or activity in a calm, curious manner
  • am confident that things will work out
  • feel well-rested and alert
  • enjoy learning about life, ideas, and people
  • feel competent and well-prepared
  • am reflexive and positively self-aware
  • can see the silver lining in practically anything

I feel like this most of the time, which is nice. =) In terms of detecting and responding to stress, I’m working on improving by:

  • figuring out which situations/approaches are more relaxed or more stressful for me, so that I can choose appropriately
  • desensitizing myself to specific stresses through repeated exposure and reflection (ex: coworking as a way of getting better at social interactions and interruptions)
  • transforming stressful situations into blog posts as well as systems for avoiding similar mistakes

Stress is part of life. It can be a useful part of life if you can figure out how to hack it. =)

  • Pat Thomasson

    This is great stuff. I am going to schedule some time to do this same “stress test” analysis of myself. Need to better understand how I am reacting to it. Thanks.