My stress footprint

3rd May 2018
Mental Health Awareness Week

This content mentions anxiety, which some people may find triggering.

Last month, I wrote a blog announcing stress as the theme of Mental Health Awareness Week and some of the comments I received on it gave me food for thought.

Many agreed this is a theme that is overdue serious consideration. But one comment stood out: 'Why don’t you consider the stress you cause, not just the stress you experience?'

Next month, we will be releasing the results of the largest and most comprehensive survey on stress in the UK. It will undoubtedly find that a significant amount of stress we experience comes from the interaction we have with other people in our lives.

The Stress Footprint is the second-hand stress others unknowingly pick up from you and you unknowingly pick up from others. We are social and empathetic creatures and often feel and mimic the emotions of those we're around, such as tension caused by feelings of stress.

So, I decided to do a very unscientific survey. I wanted to know from colleagues, friends and family about:

  1. the stress that I cause them
  2. how often it happened
  3. in what ways I could act differently in the future

I sent half a dozen people (including my wife and son) the same set of questions. It felt like a scary thing to ask. How would I feel if people unloaded a stream of hitherto unexpressed grievances that served to undermine the potential of the relationship? Could I handle feedback about how I contributed to people’s feeling of being overwhelmed and stressed?

Well, the results came in. One-by-one, people gave me humbling and gracious feedback. I want to share what I learnt and invite you consider doing the same!

Lesson 1: the vulnerability exchange

Even though I felt vulnerable in asking for feedback (and I think others felt vulnerable giving it), people responded with kindness and honesty, not cruelty. In every case, the feedback left me with a deeper sense of respect and trust for that person.

Vulnerability is often the gateway to greater levels of trust and, by definition, there is no comfortable way of being vulnerable. However, it is that trust that can help to reduce stress levels in relationships because there is a stronger platform to raise concerns more openly.

Read our relationships guide to learn the signs of healthy and toxic relationships

Lesson 2: spotting patterns

The fascinating aspect that emerged from the people’s answers was that it revealed patterns in how I react to events and the world.

For example, my wife cited the same dynamic every time a particular person visited our home. It often led to tension and arguments and yet I hadn’t spotted the 'Groundhog Day' nature of my reactions.

Human behaviour is often like that. We think we are responding fresh to each new situation when, in reality, we are rehashing learnt behaviour. Sometimes, those patterns have emerged because they have worked in the past or we have been rewarded in some way.

However, in repeating them or applying them in a new context, we fail to see the stress storm we leave in our wake. Or at least I did.

Lesson 3: managing my own anxiety

It was humbling to read that it was often my reactions to small events or attempts to push through ideas or control outcomes that caused the most stress. It was often when I felt anxious about something that I would be most likely to pass that feeling on to others.

Whether it was ambushing a colleague with an idea, or using my ‘moany voice’ with my son to get him to hurry up with tying his shoe laces, it was me passing on my worries to others. Being able to spot and manage my own anxiety, and not be controlled by it, feels like the holy grail towards reducing my stress footprint.

Lesson 4: learn the art of 'rupture and repair'

The great news was that despite the examples of stress I’d caused, no one used those examples as an opportunity to write me off.

It’s obvious that avoiding all stress in long-term relationships is neither possible nor preferable. For relationships to flourish, we need to learn how to move beyond the times when we bump up against each other and cause each other pain.

In one of the most relieving pieces of feedback, my son said what he found helped most was when I’d tuck him into bed and take time to say sorry for getting frustrated. That reconciliation process (or the ability to let go and forgive) is what therapists call the rupture and repair process. I’d argue it is a vital part of preventing stress from building up to chronic levels.

Let's start with you and me...

Trace your stress footprint today. Walk a little lighter tomorrow.

Share the message and talk to us about your stress footprint on social media by tagging us @MentalHealth on Twitter, @MentalHealthFoundation on Instagram or commenting on Facebook.

If you feel affected by the content you have read, please see our get help page for support.

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