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How do personality types impact people's responses to stress?

What's stressful to one person may be all in a day's work for another. The difference appears to lie in our perceptions of various events. Mental health professionals believe personality plays a significant role in how we perceive stress.

People with "Type A" personalities, for example, are rushed, ambitious, time-conscious and driven. Studies suggest these traits, if not properly managed, can create stress-related illnesses. In contrast, the "Type B" personality is a much more relaxed, less time-conscious and driven person. Type B personalities are able to view things more adaptively. They are better able to put things into perspective, and think through how they are going to deal with situations. Consequently they tend to be less stress-prone.

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The Development of Personality Type

But where do these differences in personality come from? A variety of social, biological, psychological and behavioral factors influence the development of our character. Scientists agree that a largely genetic personal chemistry, or in-born temperament, influences an infant to react to its environment in ways that can be assertive or shy. Such tendencies are further influenced by experiences. The combination of inheritance and experience form an individual's characteristic way of behaving, feeling and thinking — his personality.

Studies also show that men and women handle stress differently — a difference that some scientists attribute, in part, to estrogen. This hormonal difference may also account for the fact that women are three times more likely to develop depression in response to the stress in their lives than are men. Women, unlike men, also tend to have stronger social support networks to which they turn during times of stress. These social supports may help explain why women, in general, seem to be better able to cope with stress than men.

Recent research suggests that our response to stress could be influenced by our experiences in the womb. Scientists have been studying mechanisms by which maternal stress — and the resulting high levels of cortisol in her body during pregnancy — could affect the development of the baby. According to the research, if a mother has high cortisol levels, the fetus will have similarly high levels. As a result, this exposure could effect the level of receptors for stress-related substances in the brain, which may make them more susceptible to stressors later in life.

Even after birth, a mother's response to stress affects her baby. Research shows that if a mother is stressed or very depressed during the early weeks of her baby's life, she may not establish a good relationship with her child. Worse, there could be long-term consequences on the child's stress response, behavior and intelligence.

Chronic Stress Has Serious Health Implications

Even people with the most adaptable personalities can experience the effects of long-term stress if they lack a sense of control over aspects of their daily lives. Scientists studying stress in the workplace, for example, have found that those who perceive that they have the least control over their working environment suffer from the highest levels of stress-related illness. Experts recommend that managers work to ensure that their employees have some sense of empowerment in order to relieve an unnecessary source of chronic stress.

Caregivers of elderly or chronically ill family members are another group subject to chronic high levels of stress. For example, studies done on caregivers of Alzheimer patients show that chronically high cortisol levels significantly weakened their immune systems. Mental health professionals suggest that caregivers try to set very small goals in the care or recovery of their loved ones and take respite from their responsibilities to lessen their stress.

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