We all react differently to stress. Carly*, a 35-year-old banker, appears to breeze her way through endless work deadlines while looking after her frail, elderly mother, yet she often gets headaches, backaches and stomach upsets. Meanwhile student Maya* goes quiet the minute she senses an argument is brewing, and if she can escape to her bedroom, she will. Jane*, on the other hand, is the opposite. This 30-year-old homemaker slams doors, throws her children’s toys around the apartment and shouts at whoever is within earshot.
Experts say these are three of the more common reactions to stress, and they’re based on the fight or flight response, a physiological reaction that happens when we perceive a threat. The reactions were first described by American physiologist Walter Bradford Cannon in 1915, yet psychologists say they’re as prevalent today as they’ve always been.
Carey Kirk, counselling psychologist at The LightHouse Arabia in Dubai, says that to understand our reaction to stress, we must first understand what constitutes stress.
‘Stress is a reaction to a perceived demand and it can come in two forms – eustress, which is healthy stress that challenges and motivates us and helps us to feel stimulated and alive, and distress, which comes from demands that tax us and leave us feeling overwhelmed, drained or incapable.’
But aren’t we all under stress most days? UK stress and anxiety expert Becki Houlston insists we differentiate between stress and pressure. ‘Pressure is short term and you remain resourceful. Stress is your reaction to prolonged threat, which could be a boss who’s constantly criticising you, making you worry about your job security, or a partner who nitpicks at the way you look after the children, leaving you feeling inadequate.
‘Most causes of stress are self-created. True, Carly can’t help her mum being so ill and dependent on her, but she can look at the way she handles the extra workload and the emotional turmoil, and she could start to prioritise her own needs.’
So which stress personality are you, and what can you do to improve your reaction to all the problems and conflicts that life throws at you?
THE DRAMA QUEEN
This character is very sociable. She is often the life and soul of a dinner party, or the organiser of the office social life. She also shares everything and she plasters minute details about her life – good and bad – all over Facebook.
But the minute she senses a threat to her comfort zone, she overreacts and lashes out. She’s the one shouting at people in the bank, slamming doors in the office, firing off angry letters to firms or arguing with her kid’s teacher.
‘This person may have a low tolerance for frustration and discomfort,’ says Carey. ‘When she’s confronted with a demand like a short work deadline or conflict in a relationship, she may feel she doesn’t have the skills to deal with or manage the feeling of stress.
‘She may say to herself things like: “I shouldn’t feel this way,” or “What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I manage?” This creates more feelings of stress and discomfort, which are then discharged by shouting at or blaming a co-worker or a partner, snapping at people around them, or physically, by slamming doors, punching a wall or throwing things around.’
Becki adds: ‘This person blames everyone but herself. She’s never at fault, and any blame that comes her way is hit back, as in a tennis match.’
If this is you… Becki recommends shining a light on your thoughts and feelings so you get to know yourself really well.
‘Drama queens aren’t good at being on their own, so having some time alone is a good place to start,’ Becki says.
‘She could look at the past few situations where she has gone off the boil. If she can identify the emotion present before she shouted, snapped, threw or punched, that’s what she needs to work on. It could be a fear that someone doesn’t like her and she’s losing popularity, or a fear that her boss is trying to make her look stupid in front of clients.’
Drama queens are advised to count to 10, remove themselves from the situation and go for a quiet walk round the block. Yoga is also beneficial.
‘Anything high energy isn’t good for drama queens,’ says Becki, ‘as it keeps them in a reactive state.’
One last tip: ‘Don’t make decisions when your emotions are high and your intelligence is low,’ advises Becki. ‘Instead go for a walk, or take five and have a coffee break.’
The person is usually an introvert, yet she’s dependable and reliable. However, she hates confrontation, whether it’s a complaint about her children’s behaviour or an argument with another driver over a parking space. At the first sign of any stress, she will withdraw in whatever way she can.
Carey says when the avoider is confronted with a short work deadline or conflict in a relationship, rather than having a chat with her boss or her husband, she will shut down and procrastinate or she’ll avoid replying to questions. She might keep away from people or call in sick because she feels she just can’t face the day.
Becki adds, ‘If she’s out for a meal in a restaurant, and the person at the next table complains about their meal, she will want to get out as quickly as possible. If she can’t leave the place, she will switch off mentally.
‘If she has money worries, she will ignore her bank statements when they appear in her emails or she will put off opening letters from her bank. She will often have conversations in her head, telling people exactly what she thinks of them, but she would never tell them out loud and for real.’
If this is you… Becki suggests you get comfortable with confrontation, so that you can express your needs.
‘The avoider can get herself out of this pattern by deciding what she wants and asking for it,’ says Becki. ‘She would feel so much better if she could tell her partner or friend they have hurt her, for example, instead of going quiet for a few days and letting the hurt simmer away inside her.
‘If she could get the conversation out of her head, she’d feel a lot lighter and she’d be tackling the issue head-on, rather than prolonging it, or creating new problems.
‘Joining a debating society where people are meant to argue would get her used to confrontation and disagreements, and high-impact exercise, such as spinning, would create good energy, which would calm the mind.
‘When she feels unsafe and the need to go off and hide from stress, she could conjure up and relive in her mind a time when she felt perfectly safe. This might calm her and stop her from running away!’
This person has a ‘get on with it’ attitude – she appears quite tough and stoic, as she copes with a demanding job, poorly children, moving home and ageing parents. And when others are having a tough time, her attitude is if she’s gotten through her troubles, then they can too.
But as Carey explains, our emotions exist to give us information about our surroundings, and if we don’t listen to them, or if we quash them, our body will then try to get our attention.
‘When these people face stress, they say they’re fine at the time, but then later they complain of stomach problems, pains in their chest, backache or nausea,’ says Carey.
Becki concurs. ‘The mind-body connection is so strong that stress that isn’t dealt with can become irritable bowel syndrome, heart attacks, thyroid problems, high blood pressure and even alopecia,’ she says. ‘The body is trying to tell them something is wrong.
‘From the outside, these people look to be coping with high amounts of stress, but then you’ll find they’re always cancelling social events because they’re ill, or they regularly phone in sick to work.’
If this is you… start by talking to a trusted friend about the stress in your life, whether you think you’re handling it or not.
‘If you can find a safe way to express your negative emotions, you’ll get them out of your body and stop them causing you physical problems,’ says Becki. ‘Look at the way you talk to yourself – stop berating yourself if you don’t get through your work before the weekend. Be kinder to yourself and others.
‘Try yoga or meditation, and if that’s too calm to begin with, go for a peaceful walk. Or spend some time with animals – being kind and loving has a therapeutic effect on us.’