Once you can begin to recognize your stress behavior, you can begin to change it.
Let’s face it—many of us are stressed. And when we’re triggered by a stressful event, we often take it out on the ones we love, making stress the probable cause of many of our toughest relationship issues.
So what is stress, exactly, and how can we begin to manage it more effectively in our relationships?
Ironically, rather than the nuisance we tend to experience it as, stress is actually an ancient biological mechanism of our nervous system that helps us survive when we perceive danger or a threat in our environment.
Robert Sapulsky, a Stanford University neurobiologist, explains how stress was originally designed to protect us: “If you’re a normal mammal, what stress is about is three minutes of screaming terror on the savannah, after which either it’s over with or you’re over with.”
For us humans, stress is caused by all kinds of issues that may or may not be truly life threatening. This is because we have a self-referential internal environment powered by the cerebral cortex, a part of the brain that plays a key role in memory, attention, perceptual awareness, thought, language, and consciousness—you know, those ways we evolved beyond normal mammals.
Because we have an internal environment, we’re essentially programmed to react to internal “threats” as if they were external ones. Therefore, we can continue the stress response long after the triggering event is over—keeping our bodies on edge, our senses vigilant, and our emotions ready for a fight. So, unfortunately, when we come home after a stressful day at work, we’re primed to attack the person we care about the most.
Zebras don’t get ulcers, Sapulsky explains, because they don’t have a cerebral cortex. Animals have an instinctual curiosity that prepares them for attack on an as-needed basis. No lion? No sweat.
We humans, however, because of our cortex and our ability to be self-aware, have more choice in our responses. As you can imagine, this has both positive and negative aspects. Negatives include being afraid of our own fear response, which can literally create a panic attack. It can also result in us fighting with our partners, who had nothing to do with the original stressful event. A pattern of fighting or arguing can then contribute to feelings of unease and distrust, which may further trigger our stress response, causing us to start yet another fight.
This is how the vicious cycle of relationship conflict continues—and to many of us, it can feel beyond our control.
But having a cerebral cortex is also positive. If we humans have more choice in our responses, we can also influence outcomes for the better. So why not use our self-awareness to create a more desired relational result?
Let’s look at stress as a continuum of behavior. Check in with yourself: How far along the continuum do you tend to go before you recognize how you’re engaging your behavior? Everyone is different.
Once you can begin to recognize your stress behavior with more specificity, you can begin to participate in it—it’s the voluntary side to the stress response. (The involuntary side is the release of stress hormones that create the adrenalin rush.) There’s always a dance between the voluntary and the involuntary within us. Once you start to actively participate in your behavior, you can begin to slow down your response.
For example, you may realize that you tense up your hands, arms, and jaw when you feel stressed. What happens if you tense less and breathe deeply? How does that alter your experience? How does it begin to change how you feel and, as a result, how you communicate with your partner?
There are many different ways people respond to stressful situations. By learning how you’re engaging with your stress in any given moment, you allow yourself more choice in how you want to respond. If you and your partner both work on your own responses, you’ll both be able to shape the experience you want in your relationship.
We may not be able to control the stressors in our lives, but we can definitely change how we respond to them.
Donna Molettiere, MFT, is a San Francisco-based marriage counselor at The Couples Center. Passionate about helping couples form intimate, loving, and satisfying relationships, Donna has 10 years of training and education in Somatic Psychology and employs a pragmatic systems approach to her work with couples.