Too Many Layers
What do sound, overstimulation, stress, and achieving a sustainable equilibrium have in common? Layers.
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A few months ago, Sean and I were driving through a particularly accursed section of Lancaster…
…the outlet shopping area.
It was a dreary day, and rain had begun to fall. Not heavy rain, but enough to necessitate some intermittent windshield wiping. His phone was playing some sort of ambient jazz—pleasant, nothing challenging—through our Subaru's stereo.
We were talking about... something. I can't remember what. It doesn't matter.
I became increasingly tense. I felt myself starting to dodge the conversation. Not because we were talking about anything difficult but because I started to feel like I couldn't keep up.
Then, I felt an overwhelming urge to turn the music off.
At that moment, I realized that the rain, plus the music, plus conversation, added up to too much aural data for me to process at once. At least comfortably. To keep up with the conversation, which I had been enjoying, I needed to subtract something. And since I have not mastered psychic control of the weather just yet, my instinct was to turn the music off.
Listen to the first 5 minutes of today’s episode to get a feel for my experience:
"There were just too many layers," I explained to Sean.
The rain, the windshield wipers, the music, the conversation, the noise of the car... It feels like standing in the sun wearing far too many layers of warm clothing. Overheating. Stifling. Just that visceral need to strip down to something more comfortable.
This was not, of course, the first I've experienced the suffocating force of too much aural information. I don't like going out to eat with a group that's too big to have just one conversation. I can't cook with my kid in the kitchen while music is playing. But that day in the car was the first time the metaphor of "layers" came to me as a way to describe my sensory experience.
One of the common autistic traits I thought I didn't have was sensory sensitivity. But, like a few other autistic traits, it was one that I'd suppressed. I had desensitized myself if you will. Except, of course, that I hadn't. I'm easily overstimulated by sound, and learning to ignore that fact didn't make me less sensitive to sound.
It just made me cranky.
While I experience overstimulation in a variety of ways, sound is my primary trigger. As more and more sounds layer on top of each other, I find it harder and harder to function. The sounds don't need to be unpleasant. They don't have to be loud. It's simply the presence of layers of sound that make it seem like I'm drowning in sensory information.
In the past, when overstimulation became too much, I'd retreat.
I'd remove myself from the situation entirely until my system got back to what passes for normal. But when I noticed the layers, I got a new way to address my needs. I don't have to retreat completely if I can just remove an unnecessary layer or two.
To use my previous analogy, I don't have to strip naked to feel relief from the sun. I can remove my jacket. Or pull my hair back. Or step into the shade.
Thinking in "layers" can be a useful technique for regulating work stress, too.
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Overstimulation and work stress have quite a bit in common.
Bianca Acevedo, a researcher and psychologist at UC Santa Barbara, highlights how the strain of chronic overstimulation can sound a lot like the strain of work stress: “feeling stressed out,” “suffering from burnout,” feeling “overwhelmed,” or a sense that “I can’t handle things anymore.”
As I mentioned, I used to put up with an overstimulating sensory experience until I just couldn't anymore. Then I'd run off, preferably alone, to somewhere quiet and let my system start to cool off. Even better if I had some noise-canceling headphones with me. And I always have noise-canceling headphones with me now.
Now, by noticing the layers, I can selectively dial back the sensory input that's overwhelming me. Similarly, I'm more likely to venture into hostile territory—like a busy grocery store—if I can pop in my earbuds to dull part of the sensory experience.
The same thing can happen with work. If the layers become too overwhelming for too long, I will burn out and need to retreat. This has happened every four or five years throughout my life—and I'm actively working to break that cycle. To do that, I'm being much more mindful of the layers of stress and how I dial them up or down.
I pay attention to how travel stress might be one layer too many—and adjust my schedule or expectations accordingly. Or I notice if I have an uncharacteristically Zoom-heavy week—and let Sean know that I might not be very talkative in the evenings. When I notice the addition of a layer or two, I look for a layer or two I can eliminate, like I did with the car stereo.
Stress is always more than meets the eye
In 1984, psychologists Richard Lazarus and Susan Folkman offered a new model for understanding stress and how we cope with it. They argued that stress arises out of a person's interaction with their environment. And that how a person copes or manages stress is based on their appraisal of that interaction.
This model takes into account how what one person finds stressful, another person just won't. For instance, Sean has absolutely no problem functioning in an environment where he's dealing with layer upon layer of sound. He rather likes it! But for me, it's overwhelming. Similarly, I have no problem churning out thousands of words every week—but for him, that would be a stressful activity.
What's more, this model also helps us consider how our response to stress is dynamic. What we perceive as a threat one day might be benign the next. What feels like one layer too many in one scenario might be just fine in another.
On its face, Lazarus and Folkman's model of stress seems pretty self-evident. We might not have used the same words or mapped the process in the same way, but we probably have a feel for the idea. Unfortunately, many of us learned to ignore certain environmental factors that cause stress in an unconscious (or conscious) effort to just "live with" them.
For most of my life, I had no idea how much sound impacted my mood or quality of thought. When we bought a house almost nine years ago, we chose one on a very busy street. Now, I live with constant street noise. It's a layer of stress for me that I can only get rid of by putting on my noise-canceling headphones. Before I became consciously aware of the way sound disrupts my life, I didn't have that coping mechanism. I was just frustrated and irritable most of the time—seemingly for no reason. I'd been "living with" something that was a major cause of stress without the words or mental model to even name it.
The same can be true at work, in relationships, and even in our bodies. What we either aren't aware of or have decided to tolerate long ago escapes our perception. Because we don't perceive it, we can't deal with it. Like the constant traffic outside my bedroom window at night, the stress simmers just out of range of our conscious thoughts.
If we don't perceive it, we can't deal with it.
To address our stress, we need to perceive it. And this is why I find the layers analogy so helpful.
With work, the layers can take on many different forms. Responsibilities and projects are layers. So are meetings, phone calls, and emails. Conflicts, deadlines, metrics, and targets can introduce layers. But situations at home or challenges with non-work relationships can also introduce unexpected layers into the mix. Microaggressions, lack of accommodations, and demands for affective or emotional labor are also layers of work stress.
And the layers don't even have to be bad to impact our experience. Acevedo writes:
Even pleasant changes such as leaving on a vacation, moving to a new home, marrying, getting a promotion, parenthood, or retirement will have unpleasant side effects, such as feeling unsettled, losing sleep, and feeling flooded by their emotional reactions.
Acevedo notes that people dealing with overstimulation often "allow their own duties to be affected last." This only exacerbates the problem.
When we don't recognize the layers for what they are, we push ourselves harder and harder. We start to believe that the problem isn't our interaction with our environment but a personal deficiency. The only remedy seems to be retreat—a day off, vacation, new job, hiring help. Of course, our retreats from work often create additional layers of stress on their own.
Instead of waiting until we're at the breaking point, trying to book some time in a sensory deprivation tank, we can try removing a layer. But first, we have to figure out what all the different layers are.
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6 Categories for Perceiving Stress
Everyone will experience stress differently, of course, but here are six categories to consider as we look for all the layers we're currently dealing with. Remember: stressors aren't always unpleasant. They're simply a layer that's vying for a bit of our processing power.
First, there are the routine tasks and responsibilities that make up the work we do.
These are all the basics. The responsibilities that make up the thing we call our "jobs." Because they're basic, we often overlook these layers. They've become so integrated into how we work that they fade into the background. But that doesn't mean they're not drawing on some of our processing power.
If you're a Chrome user, you might have noticed that a recent update added a feature that lets your browser ignore tabs you've had open for a while. It'll even tell you how much memory usage the tab was costing you before it went to sleep.
Unfortunately, we don't have that kind of functionality. Practice and familiarity can certainly reduce the load over time. But it doesn't go away.
Second, there are added tasks and responsibilities.
These might be projects we've given ourselves—new ideas, strategic research, doing something special for a client. These tasks and responsibilities might also come from covering for a colleague or team member who's sick or on leave. Or, they can come from organizational needs like new sales targets or parsing new regulations.
These added tasks and responsibilities are often the things we think about when we think about stress at work. It's important to recognize that these stressors exist within a broader context. They are just another set of layers.
Next, we've got our work environments.
This category includes our sensory, emotional, and social experience of work. That might be an office that's too noisy, a messy desk, or a distracting view out a window. Our work environments also have an emotional atmosphere—urgency, conflict, uncertainty, optimism, inspiration, etc. How we feel, as well as the emotions we pick up from others (either in our space or in our Slack channel), add layers of stress.
Finally, racism, sexism, ableism, and other forms of discrimination create layers of stress that we might have to expend resources to deal with.
Work relationships can also add a layer of stress.
Here, we're talking about interpersonal stress. That might mean a conflict with someone we work with or anxiety about a certain client. Maybe it's a colleague's or client's stress that we need to navigate even though the relationship is typically low-stress.
Next, we need to examine world stress.
This category is everything that adds a layer that happens sort of... out there... [waves arms and gestures wildly]. We have no control over this stuff. It's the pandemic, war, and natural disasters. It's climate change. It's gun violence, the economy, and elections.
These layers of stress are sneaky. We might not realize that the local school board election or latest political scandal is adding to our stress—but that doesn't mean it isn't. If we work in a larger organization, we might be encouraged to minimize talk about these stressors. But if we're even lightly engaged world citizens, this stuff takes up some processing power.
Finally, there's just general (or very specific) life stress.
Even though we're talking about work, stress that we experience in our personal lives takes some of our processing power at work. After all, it's not like we have one bodymind for home and another bodymind for work!
This category, of course, is absolutely huge and highly variable. A sick kid or parent, a snow day, or even a hair appointment can throw everything off—especially if we're already working with a lot of layers.
Once we've identified all the different layers of stress (or stimulation) we might be experiencing, we have two good ways to proceed. We can remove or mitigate a layer or two on our own. We can also use our new clarity to ask for accommodation. What's more, we don't have to decide which tact to take—we can do both.
So first, the straightforward option is to take something off of our proverbial plate. Before you dismiss this as "duh," consider that, without a full accounting of the layers we're currently dealing with, we don't know all of our options for relief. If we're stressed at work, we tend to look for tasks or responsibilities we can ignore for a bit.
And while I wholly support that strategy, it's not always possible. However, when we notice that one of the layers is, say, a lack of good sleep because we've been doing some serious revenge bedtime procrastination, we can decide to go to bed at a reasonable time for the next week. Removing life stress or disengaging from world stress for a bit can absolutely help with work stress that we can't get rid of. The opposite is also true.
The second option, which is slightly less straightforward but is critical, is asking for accommodation. Accommodations can include additional help, additional resources, or additional time. They can also be an adjustment to a process or a change in expectations. When we have a full accounting of the layers we're dealing with, we have many more options for requesting support.
Looking over the layers we're dealing with, we can ask ourselves: what would make handling this easier? Again, notice that an accommodation at home can make something at work easier. And vice versa. I think this strategy is especially helpful when there are people in our lives who would love to make our lives easier, even in a small way. But how many times do we dismiss those offers because we don't actually know what would help? Or is it just me?
Living with the layers
Living (and working) with a 'layered' approach to stress gives us a new toolkit for nuanced self-care and tailored stress management. Just as I learned to manage sensory overload by recognizing and adjusting the layers of sound around me, we can approach our work stress in a similarly responsive manner. By viewing our stressors as layers, we equip ourselves with the power to peel them back, one by one, or gather additional support as needed.
This method of stress management isn't just about removing what overwhelms us; it's about creating an environment in which we mindfully balance each layer, whether it's a responsibility, a relationship, or an external stressor. The key lies in our awareness and willingness to adjust these layers, not in simply enduring them. We don't have to wait for a breaking point to make changes. Instead, we can proactively shape our environments, creating a sustainable equilibrium that fosters both productivity and well-being.
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