Stressblind: The Dangers of Getting Used to Stress And 4 Easy Ways to Turn Things Around
February 17, 2023
by whitneyh

Remember those old commercials about going noseblind? Where the homeowner walks into the room thinking it smells fine, and then their friend enters and the couch suddenly morphs into a smelly dog-couch hybrid?

Funny and relatable, right?  Well, I’m here to tell you that you can be stressblind too. Stressblind is when you’ve been so stressed for so long that you get used to it. Yes, I know it’s not a real word, but I’m making it one now because it truly hits home.

So, what are some examples of stressblindness?

  • You get home from work and collapse from exhaustion, thinking its normal, and yet you still can’t stop talking about work
  • You’re so “in the zone” you forget to eat, drink water, or use the bathroom… all-day
  • Your colleagues see your schedule and repeatedly share their concern for your well-being 
  • You bolt upright in bed because you need to send that one email or just had an idea for another work project 
  • You’re a high-achiever, always striving for more.  So whenever a new opportunity presents itself, you say yes.  No matter how busy you are, you negotiate with yourself. You make excuses, so you can take on more and more, never quite admitting your inability to say no.

Need I continue? Sadly, these are all real-life examples from real-life stressblind folks.

To sum up- you may be living the life of this graphic… You’re smiling with bags under your eyes and all the while your nervous system is ramped wayyyyy up, on FIRE, and you have no idea. Why? Because it’s been going on so long it’s your new normal. 


Habituating Stress

Let’s talk about how stress can become a habit.  Stress can actually be a helpful, wonderful thing.  It’s a very normal part of life. And any time we go through a change- good, bad, or neutral, we are experiencing a stressor.  It’s something new and that is stressful for our nervous system to adjust to.  When something stressful happens, our bodies, wanting to keep us safe, go into our emergency response mode or fight-flight mode.  We get a boost of hormones like cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine; which are helpful during dangerous situations. These hormones make us more alert, so we can respond quickly and effectively to a threat.  Our heart rate increases, getting more blood to our muscles, so we can hit our enemies harder when we fight, or so we can hit the ground harder when we flee to safety. Our respiration rate increases to get more oxygen into the lungs.  Our digestive processes pause so all our energy that’s normally for processing food can now be spent on survival. This is all well and good when we have to unexpectedly speak at a meeting, need to slam on the breaks in traffic, or need to survive a life-and-death situation.  These physiological changes can increase your stamina, strength, reaction time, and focus; helping us to fight or flee. And after the stressor is over, we are able to return to equilibrium.

But what happens when we get stressed over and over again?  Our nervous system can’t tell the difference between a physical and emotional threat, so we respond to all stressors as potential life and death situations.  In other words, your body may react to a work deadline or fight with a loved one in the same way it would react to a car crash! Yikes! And to put some salt in those wounds, the more your emergency response system is activated, the more you get used to being in emergency mode.  You become less responsive to stress, seeing it as the norm in our go-go-go society, and your hyperactive stress response system gets more reactive and easier to trigger.  

Eventually, we get used to being in this constant state of stress.   Basically, our stress is happening on the reg and we never get a clear signal to return to our normal level of functioning.  So, we get used to being hyper-vigilant, our body waiting on high alert to protect us from that next bad thing, and because that’s the new norm, we don’t. even. realize. it’s. happening.  

Stress can be sneaky that way!  And all too often, we don’t realize it’s a problem… until it becomes a bigger problem. What was once the helpful emergency response now contributes to a decrease in proper functioning in the cardiovascular, sleep, immune, digestive, and reproductive systems.  

How Stress Impacts Us

What’s the problem with being stressblind?  It sounds kind of nice to not know you’re stressed, right?  

Wrong!  This too can be a problem.  The more you push down, ignore, or deny your stress, the louder it gets.  Piling up higher and higher until it begins to manifest physically, emotionally, and relationally.  The more you are stressed, the more exposure you are getting to stress hormones. This exposure can lead to more serious concerns such as high blood pressure, heart disease, cancer, stroke, unhealthy weight gain, insomnia, hypertension, stroke risk, ulcers, GI issues, sexual issues, suppressed immune system, chronic fatigue, and more long-term health concerns.

Not only does stress impact us physically- muscular tension, fatigue, headaches, stomach aches, and more.  But it can also show up mentally and relationally. This looks different for everyone, but could include depression, anxiety, irritability, constant worrying, racing thoughts, moodiness, anger, difficulty concentrating, focusing on the negative, withdrawing from others, using drugs/alcohol/cigarettes to relax, and oh so much more!

But honestly, to me, the most dangerous thing about stress is the possibility of stressblindness.  Your stress goes from something you respond to and then recover from to your typical day to day experience.  You may notice it when it starts taking a bigger toll on your physical, mental, emotional, or relational health.  Or you might not until the damage is intense and you are burned out and/or physically or emotionally unwell. And that’s pretty freakin scary.

From Stressblind to Resilient

So what now?  You know you’re stressed.  And maybe you even feel me on the whole stressblind thing.  So how do you turn it around? I’ll break it down into a couple of easy steps.

  1. Increase awareness. I’m not gonna lie to you.  It’s 100% an impossible dream to think you can change your stress levels if you don’t even know that you are stressed.  Without awareness, stress levels can climb and climb, and we are none the wiser. So check in with yourself throughout the day.  Are your muscles tense? Are you fixated on the negative? Are you ignoring bodily cues like hunger? Are you more irritable, barely containing yourself from snapping about something small?
  2. Know your red flags.  Seems pretty obvious, I know.  But this is easier said than done.  Of course, most of us can tell when we are extremely stressed.  I’m having heart palpitations, hmmmm, could be all the stress I’m under.  But the flags I’m talking about are the ones that happen at a lower stress level.  So on a 0 to 10 scale, a panic attack may be a symptom that shows up when your stress is at a 10 out of 10.  But once you’re at a 10, it’s hard to come down quickly. Doesn’t it make more sense to catch yourself at a 2, 3 or maybe even a 7 and then take action??  So what are the smaller red flags that can cue you into your stressblindness? Maybe it’s ignoring the endless pile of paperwork that’s now become a computer stand.  Or being annoyed that your partner ate the center of your cookie, the best part!! Or that your jaw hurts a little midday because you’ve been grinding your teeth all morning.
  3. BOUNDARIES.  Do I need to say more?  Boundaries can be really hard for the stressblind.  We are so used to our stress that some of the time, we don’t even identify as stressed.  So we say yes to everything and push through to get it done. Boundaries, set up with intention and care, can be extremely useful.  I may not feel stressed about something in the moment, but over time it adds up, so having a boundary keeps me safe. Here’s a real-life example- a bigger red flag for me is not wanting to check my emails.  I love my emails and connecting with others.  So it’s strange for me to avoid it.  This usually happens when I’ve been putting pressure on myself to check emails all day, every day. When a new e-mail comes in on Friday night at 7, it doesn’t feel like a big deal to check it. But if I check emails in every spare moment, eventually I’d rather quit my job than open another email.  So, if I make it a hard and fast rule to not check emails after 6 on workdays and not at all on Saturdays, this small stress won’t build and build until I can’t take it anymore. Stress is cumulative- the little things add up.
  4. Small, sustainable steps for self-care.  Find what this is for you. It could be small things you do to take care of your body, mind, emotions, spirit, relationships, or some combination.  I teach my clients a variety of small, accessible skills for decreasing and managing stress from the worlds of mindfulness, psychology, and yoga therapy.  The biggest lesson I’ve learned from this is that self-care is a discipline and not a luxury. Yes, it can be luxurious.  But a spa day twice a year is not the fix for a system in a constant state of stress.  What actually is impactful are small, actionable steps that you can take daily to remind your body that that deadline, date, career change, or fight with your partner is not a life and death situation.  Steps that can remind your system that it is as safe as it can be right now. And that level of stress, one of discomfort rather than lack of safety, is uncomfortable, but tolerable.  

So you’re ready to make a change, to increase your awareness around your stress and stressblindness?  Great! Not only will this help you to decrease your stress levels, but it will also increase your resiliency.  This is your ability to bounce back to equilibrium after a stressor. The more you practice tiny steps for down-regulation (going from fight/flight to rest/digest), the more you can tolerate, and the impacts of stress on the mind and body greatly decrease.

Want a little support in improving your stress radar and stress reduction skills?  Feel free to reach out for compassion fatigue or burnout therapy session. Or contact me to schedule a compassion fatigue training for your company.