Human Responses to Stress and Anxiety: Over-functioning and Under-functioning

The purpose of this blog is to help you create more awareness around your behavioral patterns and responses during times of stress and anxiety.  On one of her recent podcasts on Unlocking Us, Brene’ Brown was talking about typical responses to stress, explaining that as humans we tend to do on of two things in times of stress, we either over-function or under-function.  Her research shows that these tend to be adaptive patterns and responses to stress that we have learned from our first families, our families of origin.  The way an over-functioner reacts and copes with stress is to amp up, make a list and check it off, do all the things, and may come across as controlling in an attempt to cope and manage the situation.  The way an under-functioner tends to react is times of stress is to slow down, perhaps freeze, hands over responsibilities and tasks to others and may appear irresponsible and cause others to be concerned. Both reactions are completely NORMAL and most of us are one of the two, so however you tend to cope is okay.  The most powerful part of the podcast for me was hearing Brene' talk about the patterns of functioning from a vulnerability lens.  She said “When you look at over-functioning and under-functioning through a vulnerability lens, it’s easy to see that both ways of functioning are forms of armor, they are learned behaviors for getting out from under fear and uncertainty, over-functioner- ‘I won’t feel, I will do.  I help, I don’t need help, I help’, under-functioning- ‘I won’t function, I’ll fall apart. I don’t help, I need help.’”  Later she goes on to talk about what we can do about this.  For over-functioners, the growth edge is to own it, name it and work on being more vulnerable in times of anxiety.  For under-functioners, the growth edge is calling on your power and building on your strengths in times of anxiety.  I see over-functioning as attempting to control our environment so we feel less intense discomfort and emotions or avoid them, and under-functioning as an attempt to check out of the feelings or getting stuck in the feelings.  Calm is a practice, and from her research and data on it, she has found that “calm practitioners” have perspective, mindfulness and the ability to manage emotional reactivity. I tend to over-function in response to stress and anxiety.  In an attempt to gain some sense of control and safety, I tend to do all the things, and when COVID hit I focused on doing all the projects, crafts, teaching, spending the quality time, writing the blogs, doing the laundry, posting the posts, cleaning the house, doing the workouts.  And today, a couple weeks later, I felt my mind and body yearning to just sit, be, do nothing.  I over-functioned myself out and I am exhausted.  Owning this, naming it and being aware helps me understand that this is my pattern.  I have been this way since my family of origin, but it’s super heightened during times of stress.  What I need, as an over-funcitoner is to name it, own it, slow down, ask for help, reach out to others, and give myself grace and permission to feel what I feel.  We are in the midst of a global pandemic for heaven’s sake, if I can’t do that now, when can I?!  I think it’s pretty similar for under-functioners, what you are doing makes sense, it’s a pattern of responding for you during times of stress, and you need to name it, know it’s normal too, and possibly work on empowering your natural strengths, along with reaching out for support during this time.  It is important to recognize these patterns of responding to stress are not character flaws, but responses to situations that are out of our control that have worked well for us at some time, or often, in the past.   Tips for Practicing Calm from Brene’
  • Try to be slow to respond and quick to think “do I have all the information to make a decision or form a response?”
  • Stay mindful about the effect that calm has on anxious situations, a panicked response produces more anxiety and fear. The question is “do we want to infect people with more anxiety, or heal ourselves and the people around us with calm?” Can you count to ten, give yourself permission to say “I’m not sure, tell me more.”  Breath, slow, ask questions.
  • Name that you’re in anxiety and talk about that collectively (with others).
  • Ask yourself “Do I have enough data to freak out? Will freaking out help even if I have enough data?”  Anxiety is contagious, but so is calm.   Let’s spread some much needed calm and help ourselves and others heal amidst this anxiety-ridden time.  
  Listen to the podcast here