Is Stress Changing Your Personality & Your Parenting?

Have you ever had your personality, or the way that you appear to others, actually change over time because you were under so much stress?

I'm asking that as a rhetorical question, but I'm guessing many of you reading this have had that exact experience.

The Slow Creep Of Burnout

Some of you may have experienced this in the form of work-related burnout. I, myself, was working at a job about 5 years ago that contributed to these kinds of negative personality changes. It got to the point that I would come home from work and my husband would just look at me and be instantly concerned:/

At first I would brush it off, as if everything was fine. “What's your problem?” my very expressive face would reply, as I lost touch with my own reality. But he could see over time how this particular job was really doing a number on me. I was acting (and reacting) to things so differently and didn’t even feel very motivated to do things in my downtime that I enjoyed, because of how much the situation at work sapped my energy.

It wasn’t long before I realized that I was starting to feel depressed, but that I wouldn't feel that way once I left work. Interesting, right? Good ole’ “situational depression.” Definitely a sign of a toxic environment, mixed with a fair amount of poor coping skills. I'm so glad that I paid attention to that and eventually decided to part ways with that work environment, because it was not the right fit for me.

So when it comes to moodiness and hearing from other people that you seem really irritable or unlike yourself, it's worth stopping to take a look at your present life circumstances and examining why you are getting that kind of feedback. Ask yourself “Wait- are they wondering this about me because of how I’m reacting to the intense pressure with my new role at work? Are they observing my reaction to extreme lack of sleep that has taunted me since my baby was born?” (I’m definitely speaking from experience on both of those examples!)

Are people observing something about you that confirms that you’re just a moody person? Or do you have sensitivities to certain lifestyle factors and stressors that make you more likely to act in a different way when you are under stress?

Moving Away From Internalized Blame for Burnout

Asking yourself those types of questions helps to minimize a lot of the personalization and blame that you may direct towards yourself. This is different then assuming that your personality or your character or just who you are is the source of your problem. Deciding to own something about yourself that isn't actually inherent to who you are, ignores the reality that you could just be reacting to your current circumstances because they're so stressful!

To understand this even better, try out this thought experiment for a minute: Think about the last time that you were in your happy place. You may have been on vacation, or hanging out with a group of friends, or eating a delicious meal, etc. This would be a time when you weren’t focused on any deadlines or things you had to get done or places you had to get to in a hurry.

What was your personality like in that context? What was your energy like? How was the quality of your thoughts? The words that came out of your mouth? What about the level of tension and softness in your body, or in your face?

Were you moody? Lethargic? Self-doubting? Pessimistic? Tight and achy? Okay, then, perhaps there's something else going on where you could use more support to help lift you up to a higher level of joy and confidence. However, if you were showing up very differently in your happy place than you are right now, then there's a good chance that stress is actually affecting your personality.

What The Research Tells Us About Stress & Personality

There's been a number of studies, in fact, regarding this relationship between stress and personality changes. One such study that went over the effects of stress over time, was actually able to show that for those who were experiencing peaks in perceived stress, they reported a higher number of stressors going on in their life. These same individuals reported peaks in their pessimism, because they were seeing the world and events around them more negatively. So the more they thought that stress was going up in their lives, the more

they interpreted things negatively.

The researchers stated that they were not sure if people who were feeling more pessimistic tended to notice stressors more and therefore list more stressors, but either way it's not a helpful pattern. If you are under a lot of pressure it's more likely that you're going to be seeing things in a more negative light. You might see yourself in a more negative light, as well as your circumstances, the people you're in relationship with, etc. You are more likely to put everything under a negative filter when your stress is not reigned in.

In a different study of parents who have young children from ages 3 to 9, the researchers were looking at how parental stress affected children's behaviors and how children’s behaviors affected parental stress. They confirmed that if kids’ behaviors are more difficult, for whatever reason, the parental stress tends to go up as well. Also, as parental stress went up, children's behaviors tended to worsen. So another consequence of being under stress that isn't well managed is that it will likely affect your kids behaviors, which just adds on to the difficulty you are already facing!

Let’s Make Sure We Are Solving The Right Problem

So, given all that context, it’s worth asking, are you really that moody? Or do you just need a break? Were you “born with it” or do you need some sleep?

I feel so passionately that we need to protect the emotional health and the physical well-being of moms and caretakers. While I want all people to be healthy and happy, the effect of women caretakers being at peace is so far reaching, that, in my opinion, it trumps almost everything else!

Everyone being cared for and loved on by a woman, be it an aging parent, disabled sibling, growing children, friends, spouses, coworkers, etc- they all benefit from a woman who is fully in love with herself and her life. Not to mention, all the humans that you, me, we are taking care of simply won’t be doing as well as they could be if we are not well nourished/ rested/taking breaks/realizing our dreams, etc.

In Conclusion: Don't Let Stress Determine Your Reality

To sum it all up- it might not be a personality trait you’ve got going on there. It might just be the way that stress is impacting you over time.

I'm pretty sure I’m just confirming for you what you already know. My mission is simply to give you the nudge that you need to take your burnout seriously and actually do something about it! You can’t function like that forever, so you've got to make some changes in order to have something better.

Begin to consider who you can ask for help if you need it. Get curious about creative ways that other people can support you to get breaks. Maybe it's dropping the kids off with someone trusted, or investing in extended after school care, or some fun extracurricular activities where they're off doing something cool, but you don't have to be fully focused on their every move. Maybe it’s a respite adult daycare center for your parent, so you can catch up with your girlfriends over brunch or just read a book or workout. It’s not selfish of you to want to just breathe and drink a hot coffee without being asked a thousand and one questions about things that barely make sense (or am I the only one here with an endlessly curious 4yo?)

Either way, let's stop blaming ourselves for the ways that we are naturally responding to stress. These changes in character are simply the effect that stress has on us. We can learn to manage this more effectively in order to better gain some relief. We can, once again, show up to our interactions with other people with more vibrance, more energy, a better mood, and more.

What we’re not going to do is let stress have the final say over our quality of life. Agreed? Awesome. Now let’s get it!


Research Mentioned Above on Stress Changes & Parental Considerations

Parenting Stress and Child Behavior Problems: A Transactional Relationship Across Time

Stress-related changes in personality: A longitudinal study of perceived stress and trait pessimism


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