How Do You Respond to Stress and Why It Matters?

by Rebecca on March 4, 2013

stressdogOver the last 6 months, I have become a huge fan of Dr. Brene Brown.  She is a PhD in social work and a shame researcher.  Her TEDx talks are amazing (you can check those out here.)  In Dr. Brown’s “The Gifts of Imperfection,” she blew me away with a concept about handling stress that I had experienced but had never understood.

A transformative idea that Dr. Brown brought to my attention (originally described by Dr. Harriet Lerner in “The Dance of Connection,”) was that we all have patterned ways of responding to stress/anxiety.  We either respond by over functioning or under functioning.  Neither is good or bad but instead it is what it is.  How we respond to stress is based on our past and our hard wiring.  Not surprising, Dr. Brown’s research has shown that most overfunctioners are first born or they are the first girls.

Overfunctioners, like myself become controlling, rescue, take over, micromanage, and tend to believe they know what is best for others rather than looking at themselves first.  Sound familiar to anyone?  This fits me to a tee! We get labeled as bossy, controlling and a know it all.

Underfunctioners tend to get less competent under stress.  They invite others to take over and often they become the focus of group gossip, concern, or worry.   You may feel that you cannot count on them for much, and they often get labeled as the irresponsible one or “the problem child”.

The key is remembering that these are patterned responses to anxiety, rather than truths about who we are.  Understanding that these are a patterned response enables us to understand that we can learn to modify these responses under stress.

Why does it matter to you?  It matters because how you respond to stress shapes how you handle everything, which in turn affects everyone around you both at work and at home.  Anxiety is contagious, but thankfully calm is also contagious!

It is easier for Overfunctioners to “do” than to “feel,” so we need to become more willing to embrace our vulnerabilities in the face of anxiety.  On the other hand, it is easier for Underfunctioners to “step away” than to “feel,” so they need to work on amplifying their strengths and competencies.

We all need people we can trust (your leadership team at work and family/close friends) who can and will speak the truth to us.  Unfortunately, when we are being overcome by the amount of stress we have in our lives, it is hard to see what is going on.  Because of this, we MUST have people in our lives who are not afraid to speak up and let us know what we are doing.

How can those trusted people help you?  Rather than telling you that you are bossy or controlling, these trusted people need to focus on your behavior.  So the conversation should be, “you are over functioning,” rather than you are being bossy and controlling, which we all know would not go over well.   Someone who tends to under function in stressful situations needs to be told that their opinion matters and that they are needed to step up and be involved.  The major point is that the focus should be on the behavior and not make it personal which would be counter-productive.

I hope this concept has resonated with you as much as it did me when I first read about it.  I believe it has the power to transform our leadership as well as transform our relationships with those closest to us.  I challenge each of you to take a little time and determine what your patterned response to stress is and then find those people who are willing and able to speak the truth to you when you need them to.

Do you tend to over function or under function when you are under a lot of stress?

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