Stress and Strategies

stressed woman throwing papers in the air

by Susan Kealy, Chartered Psychologist and part of the Kinch Lyons team

Ill-health from Covid-19, overwhelm, the stock-market, job insecurity, child anxieties, childcare, isolation, relationship stress, home-schooling, conflict, cabin-fever, ill-health from stress …..aaagghh!

We are in a time of unprecedented challenge for many. And as ingenious human creatures, we adapt – sometimes helpfully, sometimes less so. Personally, I can become more impulsive, more distracted and a bit more “out there” during these times. Or I can withdraw, fearful of negative outcomes.

While a certain amount of stress can actually be good for us – we sometimes refer to this as “eustress”- prolonged and intense stress rarely is. Instead, it tends to trigger survival responses in us that may have sort of worked before to help us deal with our worries, but that can often be counter-productive in the wider scheme of things.

According to leading research psychologist Horney, these defence mechanisms or coping strategies come in three main forms, and may be conscious or unconscious to us.

  1. We move toward people

We attempt to cope with our anxieties by winning the affections of others. We become overly compliant, deferent and dependent. We desperately work for people to accept us and we bow down to those we perceive as more powerful. We believe that we’ll be safer if we can belong and we relinquish our own individuality and sense of purpose in the process.

  1. We move against people

We believe that attack is the best from of defence. We try to protect ourselves against a hostile world through pre-emptive strike. We distrust, we rebel and at the extreme end we manipulate, seek revenge, intimidate or become aggressive. We may find a sense of power in this, or even excitement. But it doesn’t tend to endear others to us.

  1. We move away from people

Our flight, rather than our fight is what we feel works best. We may withdraw, become numb to our own personal experiences and distance ourselves from ourselves, as well as from others. We may lose a sense of our own needs and become excessively independent in our attempts to protect ourselves from the danger we perceive.

How are you?

Your ineffective coping strategies (also called Derailers) may be different to mine but every one of us will have our quirks.

Dr. Nigel Guenole of Goldsmith’s University is an expert in the field of psychometrics – the science of measuring psychological processes. Building on the three tendencies above he identified six specific recognisable traits that can alert people to when they’re displaying a “less perfect” version of themselves, as sometimes happens in times of stress.

These are:

Being Overly Sensitive: Characterised by feelings of depression, guilt and worthlessness, you may excessively worry about past events and future negative possibilities. Others may be slower to give you opportunities due to low self-belief.

Being Overly Competitive: You may be goal oriented but hot-tempered and tend to disregard others. At times you may be manipulative or deceitful and can be viewed as difficult by others.

Being Overly Adventurous: You can be impulsive, inattentive, disorganised and irresponsible. You are more likely to break agreements and may be viewed as untrustworthy by others.

Being Overly Diligent: You are likely to be perfectionist, rigid and inflexible. You may have very high and unrealistic ideals for others and be prone to anxieties when expectations are disrupted. You may be viewed as overly-critical and unsupportive by others.

Being Overly Reserved: You may find that you avoid others and bury your own emotions. Low energy and low daily moods can be common and you may be viewed as cold or disinterested by others.

Being Overly Unconventional: You may appear illogical, eccentric, hard to follow and even “odd” by others, who may struggle to relate to you.

Now what?

It can be uncomfortable to identify these traits in ourselves and easy to judge when we see them in others. Certainly, an amount of each of these traits can be positive under particular circumstances, and the tendency to act out in extreme ways may not be true of all of us.

But for those of us that do recognise where we may derail from time to time, some simple coping strategies can help.

For the highly reserved, a conscious conviction to engage more with others can draw us out of our shell. For the extremely sensitive, professional or peer-support and a deliberate focus on achievements can provide some relief. For the highly competitive among us, it may help to pay more attention to the consequences of our actions or to journal our frustrations on paper. Adventurous people can benefit from deliberate activities to build structure, create lists and explore goals. Perfectionists can work to adopt more curiosity and open-mindedness about others while the unconventional can work to communicate with more practically-focused partners to bring the best of their ideas to reality.

As leaders or managers, the call to shine a light on our challenges, as well as our strengths can be a difficult and often unwelcome activity – one that might result in a temptation to adopt any of the above mentioned strategies to cope with the discomfort.

Yet, stressful situations, unpleasant as they may be, can be a highly effective catalyst for professional and personal growth. A commitment to understanding and working with our derailers can be an excellent pathway to true and effective leadership and by working to adopt effective strategies, we can give ourselves a sure-fire way to feel more at ease.

About the author

Susan Kealy is a chartered psychologist and part of the Kinch Lyons team, an international psychology firm specialising in the selection and development of human capital. Susan’s particular area of expertise is psychometrics. More information can be found at