Stress Relieving Counterproductive Behaviors

Art Sponseller, JD, PCC, Senior Executive Coach,

Most people agree a job interview or an evaluation is stressful. However, when asked about stressful events during a typical day, many people can’t think of one. If stress is common, how can that be? 

The answer is we become so accustomed to lower level stress that we accept it as normal. Many ordinary, routine interactions at work and at home are stressful and trigger stress relieving and sometimes counterproductive behaviors. Many interactions contain an element of threat such as:

  • Concern over how one is perceived;
  • Uncertainty about whether the other person will agree;
  • Fear the other person will get upset; or
  • Trepidation because the other person is an authority figure. 

These ‘threats’ can be real, perceived, or exaggerated.

How do you know a situation is stressing you if you are so used to low-level stress you don’t notice it anymore? WebMD explains: “During stress response, your heart rate increases, breathing quickens, muscles tighten, and blood pressure rises. You’ve gotten ready to act. It is how you protect yourself.” You know it when you feel it IF you are intentionally aware of physical sensations, which many people are not.

And why is it important to know you are stressed?

We often perceive a threat that is not real and/or we exaggerate the degree of a threat. Our stress relieving behaviors kick in and may cause undesired results. Recognizing the stress in the moment gives us the chance to pause, take a deep breath, and analyze the situation and evaluate the reality of the threat. That awareness helps us to choose a response that is relationally effective. For example:

Engage: relieve stress by taking over the meeting, issue, challenge, or problem until you convince others to see it your way. This leads to people agreeing just to end the debate. Pausing allows you to engage in true give and take and to reach an outcome that others buy in to and will support after the meeting is over. 

Take Charge: relieve stress by taking action to solve the problem. This can lead to a larger and larger to-do list and feeling overwhelmed. Pausing allows you to continue the conversation without undue volunteering or taking over. (If you are well known for this behavior, people will bring you things to do.)

Disconnect: relieve stress by disconnecting from the situation either emotionally or by physically leaving. If you disconnect, you lose your ability to influence – you give up your power. Again, pausing and assessing the reality of the situation can help you stay connected, engaged, and heard. 

Defer: relieve stress by deferring to the other person, to let them have their way at your expense. As when you disconnect, you dishonor yourself and give up your power. Pausing and assessing the reality of the situation can help you stay in touch with your own needs and continue to seek a mutually beneficial resolution.

Be aware of stress and where it is leading you.