Stress and personality traits
How people experience stress differs from person to person. This is because everyone looks at problems that cause stress in their own unique way. Some might feel they could deal with problems actively, whereas others don’t, for example. This is where personality and stress responses meet.
Stress is more than a problem and the stress reactions
Stress reactions help us to adapt to changes in the environment. These changes can be beneficial, such as the opportunity to hop to a new job, or disadvantageous, such as being laid off unexpectedly. Changes can pose threats to our internal mental and physical equilibrium, which can lead to health problems. The loss of equilibrium brings the body into a state of stress, which serves to restore equilibrium through activation of stress reactions in your brain and body. You can read about this in an earlier article which explains what stress is in more detail. In brief, stress provides us with a protection mechanism, defending and reestablishing the disturbed balance.
While considering stress as a defensive mechanism helping us through turbulent times is certainly valuable, it leaves an important component out of the equation. This component is personality. You may interpret stressful events differently than your neighbor. Or you may be better at dealing with stressful events than your colleague. The reaction to stressful events is a highly personalized process, meaning that stress perception and reactions to stressful events depend strongly on the characteristics of a person, also known as personality.
Definition of personality
Personality is a term to describe an individual’s characteristic way of thinking, feeling and behaving. Thus, it mostly refers to cognitive reasoning, emotions, and the actions that result from reasoning and feeling. Personality importantly defines how you would behave in society. For example, your pattern of thinking and reasoning may make you more socially involved or retracted, or seeing problems as threats or challenges.
Personality represents one of the most significant clues for understanding stress. This idea goes back to Hippocrates, who said, loosely paraphrased, that it is far more important to know “what person has a disease than what disease a person has”. Since Hippocrates, psychologists have developed this concept further, and have taken efforts to describe personality types or “temperaments” to describe the link between a disease and individual reactions to that disease. This also pertains to stress.
Being vulnerable or resilient to stress, that’s the question
As mentioned, stress is the consequence of having to deal with change, especially in the case of problems or threats. If you have the impression that you are not able to cope with these threats, your stress levels will be stronger than when you feel you can deal with them successfully. This means that the amount of stress you experience depends on resources that are available to you, and the capacity that you have yourself to use these resources effectively.
For example, you might be stressed by a demanding boss. Your boss gives you too much work to do in too little time. Your boss and the excessive workloads are the stressors in this case. What can you do?
If you have an experienced colleague sitting beside you in the office who has dealt with this sort of situation before, you can ask him or her for help. He or she could say how you could finish your work quicker, or could give you advice as to how to discuss with your boss to reduce your workload. Your colleague is your resource here. Or you may have outstanding computer skills that allow you to automate part of the work you have to do, so that you will have sufficient time to complete your tasks. In both cases, your stress responses focus your attention and energy on finding help or using your skills, and will stop after completion of the work. This is why stress is first and foremost something good!
But now imagine that you see the excessive workload as an insurmountable problem. You may still talk with your experienced colleague, but may not take the step to talk with your boss. Or you may feel too stressed to put your computer skills to work for you. In this case, your personality profile is dominated by negative emotionality, which may prevent you from taking action to deal with the stressors. The resources you have are the same as for somebody who will actively seek for solutions, but your personality does not allow you to use them to your advantage. You will thus be more vulnerable to stress.
Hardiness, a personality characteristic that makes you stress resilient
Stress resilience has often been associated with an active coping style to deal with threats and problems. Therefore, it is not surprising that the personality trait known as hardiness offers one of the strongest psychological protections against stress.
So what exactly is hardiness? It all relates to taking action and keeping control. A person with a hardiness personality trait is able to handle and adapt to stressful life events actively. Even more, if you have a strong hardiness personality, you will try to turn stressful events into learning opportunities! You will have a drive to take lessons from life’s experiences, no matter whether the outcome of these experiences are positive or negative. You will also show involvement or commitment in your work and relationships, as well as a need for control over situations at work and in your private life.
Hardiness is a psychological concept that has been studied for over 20 years. It has first been studied in managers’ stress responses over a 12-year period at the Illinois Bell Company. When the study was half way, the parent business experienced a significant corporate upheaval that led to a reduction in the workforce of 50% over the course of one year. Over the following years, two-thirds of the managers displayed stress-related symptoms such as heart attacks, depression, divorce, and some even committed suicide. Interestingly however, the remaining one-third of the managers did not show any of these symptoms, and many of them even flourished in these demanding circumstances. As you will have guessed, these stress-resilient managers showed commitment, control, and took the difficult working conditions as challenges rather than as problems. The three C’s that make up hardiness (Commitment, Control, Challenge) are a unique mix that makes up a stress-resilient personality. And gives even possibilities for personal growth.
The three C’s will make you active to deal with the stressor. You will actively seek social support, and practice relaxation techniques and exercise, for example. Also, you will try to find the cause of the stressor, or adapt quickly to the new conditions. These too are active coping styles.
Optimism, another personality trait that may protect against stress
Optimism is quite a different personality trait than hardiness. Optimism hasn’t got anything to do with taking control, nor does optimism imply that one can influence the flow of events by taking action. Rather, optimism involves the belief that events would in any case take a favorable course. Optimism is therefore linked to a more general belief that the world is benevolent. Psychologists have shown that optimism helps to evaluate stressful events more calmly, based on the belief that things will turn out for the better, and to maintain mental well-being and health.
Hostility, a personality trait that makes you more susceptible to stress
Just as there are personality characteristics that make you more resilient to stress, there are also some that make you more vulnerable. One of these is the hostility personality trait.
Hostility is a personality trait that is characterized by intense and prolonged periods of anger. Anger can range from annoyance and irritability to fury and rage. If you have a hostility personality trait, you may perceive problems and threats as unfair. You may also evaluate others negatively, or be cynical towards others. You may show verbal and/or physical aggression in reaction to stressful events. Physical and verbal aggression are more common in men, but can also occur in women. Women tend to show more indirect forms of hostility, like spreading gossip.
Hostility makes you more vulnerable to stress. You will interpret stressful events as threats and problems, rather than challenges as people with the hardiness trait would do. Your sympathetic nervous system is more reactive in times of stress, and will thus launch a strong stress response. This will lead to increased levels of the stress hormone adrenaline (epinephrine) in the blood and several symptoms of stress will appear. These include increased heart beat frequency, increased blood pressure, increased breathing, tightening of the muscles, sweating, and loss of sleep. Loss of sleep will lead to more stress, so that it is difficult to calm down again quickly after a stressful event has presented itself.
Not surprisingly, hostility increases the risk of cardiovascular disease by almost 20%. This may be due to the direct effects of stress on the cardiovascular system. On the other hand, people with the hostility trait tend to have an unhealthy lifestyle, and seem to smoke and drink more than others. An unhealthy lifestyle contributes to the increased risk for cardiovascular disease, so that the risk imposed by stress alone is difficult to estimate precisely.
Personality profiles from a biological point of view
Like psychologists, biologists have also observed personality traits, but they do this in animals. They found that within a group of individuals of the same species, two basic types of behavioral strategies during stress occur. First, there are the impulsive animals who immediately take action, for example by fighting or fleeing (the fight-or-flight response). Second, there are animals that evaluate the situation before deciding what to do, or simply wait until the stressor is gone.
As a rule of thumb, the sympathetic nervous system is more active in the impulsive animals. This gives rise to high adrenaline concentrations in the blood, whereas the concentration of the stress hormone cortisol does not increase that much. The hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis) is more active in the passive animals, and they will have a stronger cortisol response in the blood, and a weaker adrenaline response. You can read more about the stress reactions through the sympathetic nervous system and the HPA axis in earlier articles.
When stress lasts for a long period of time, the hormonal differences between active and passive individuals have specific consequences. The high adrenaline concentrations in active individuals are harmful for the cardiovascular system. The high cortisol concentrations in the passive animals inhibit the immune system, increasing the risk for sickness through invading viruses and bacteria.
Active (impulsive) and passive (evaluative) personalities have been found throughout the animal kingdom, from fish to birds to mammals. The occurrence of both active and passive animals is a good thing. There might be stressful events in which it is better to take immediate action, or in which it is better to think things over first. There will thus always be animals that make the right choice: being active or passive when appropriate. On the flip side, there will be animals that will be active or passive when they shouldn’t be. They run the most risk of falling ill or being consumed by a predator. But there will always be animals that survive. This ensures the survival of the species as a whole.
One can therefore not say that active coping styles are better than passive coping styles, or vice versa. It all depends on the stressful event and the circumstances in which it occurs. For example, an active coping style demands a lot of energy. But what if energy sources are in low supply? Then a passive strategy would probably be better.
There is one advantage of active coping though. This is that taking action gives a feeling of control. You may feel that doing something to solve the problem that gives you stress effectively calms you down, and lowers anxiety. This is why for many stressful events, an active way of dealing with a stressor is more efficient to reduce stress than a passive way. Remember that taking control is one of the core characteristics of hardiness.
Personalities and stress resilience in humans
Psychologists have tried to describe personalities and personality traits in humans. Many classifications have been made since the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung has made personality an important pillar of psychology 100 years ago. But whatever classification is used, there are always elements in them that indicate active or passive coping with stressful events. Some classifications have even been linked with biological stress responses, most notably the concentrations of cortisol in the blood.
While a description of personality profiles can be useful, also to assess how somebody will deal with stress, it is impossible to place people in strictly defined categories. This is because for many of us, certain characteristics will be presented to different degrees, and there are even overlaps between personality traits that make classification hard to do, if not impossible.
This is where agencies who make personality assessments for employers go wrong. They will recommend or advise against hiring someone for a particular position within a company based on their classification of the applicant’s personality profile. This is an absolute no go. Humans and the human brain are way too complex to label them with a particular profile, let alone to predict how someone will react under stress- or work-related conditions. On top of that, human behavior and stress appraisal not only depend on personality, but also on education, social interactions, and economic position in society.
What you can do with assessing your personality is to find certain traits of which you think that could help to explain how you feel and behave during stress. If you see colleagues being promoted but not you, and feel stressed about it, what do you do? Do you go to see the manager and ask about it, or are you going to wait, thinking that with time it will be your turn? Do you bang your fist on the table in a dispute, or do you evaluate the arguments of the other party first and then formulate a balanced answer? Do you have the personality traits to reduce the stress imposed by a bad boss? Or do you have to work to develop these more, alone, with friends or with a professional?
The triangle between biology, psychology and environment
You may have captured from this article that how you deal with stress depends on your personality. But biology and your environment also play a role. In fact, the three interact, and this interaction brings about your reaction to stress. All three contribute to equilibrium, or homeostasis, in your mind and body. Perturbation of homeostasis brings you in a condition of stress.
One could imagine this as a triangle.
In this triangle, personality has a decisive influence over your stress reactions. This is because biology and the stressor from the environment do not change. For example, if you wife wants a divorce (environment), there may be nothing you can do about it. But you could learn to accept the divorce and feel at ease with it (personality), and not take it as the end of the world. And if you are a parent, you may have given your small, hungry child some water to make it wait for food a little longer without crying. You play a little psychological trick here to fool the biology of your child, which is the need of energy in the form of food.
Personality influences how you deal with stressful events to a great extent. The stronger your personality is, and more psychological inner resources you dispose of, the more likely it is to deal with a stressor effectively. Your stress will not become chronic, and you will not get one of the diseases that can be caused by stress.
If you want to understand why you feel stressed, and what you should do to reduce stress, knowing some relevant aspects of your personality will be helpful. Here, on the stressinsight website, you can find many articles on personality and dealing with stress. If you are interested, you can start by reading the following 10 articles:
- The Big Five personality traits and stress sensitivity
- Passionate about your work? Be aware of a burnout!
- 20 ways mentally strong people handle stress
- Type D personality and stress
- No more taboo: we need to talk about stress
- Statistics don't lie: women and men react differently to stress
- Gender differences in stress reactions explained
- Conscientiousness: a personality trait that protects against stress
- The ABC of stress and personality traits
- Stress early in life lasts a lifetime