On the outside, we all react the same to stress: Our heart rate increases, breath quickens, muscles tense and we break into a mean sweat. On the inside? Well that varies by individual experience. Your approach – whether it’s to panic, break down into tears, or completely snap – is something scientists recognize as ‘reactivity’.
“Your level of reactivity is a complex combination of your environment – for example, how you were raised and your genes,” notes Daniel Mroczek, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Northwestern University. Many factors in your life such as personal experiences, upbringing, education, social activity and personality play a significant influence in how you respond to stressors. Reactivity is mostly determined at an early stage, but it isn’t set in stone and as you can imagine, it varies among every individual. “There is always a choice in how you react to a stressor,” says Eva Selhub, M.D., a clinical associate at the Benson-Henry institute.
Your reactivity is personal and specific to your identity. In a way, it’s almost an alter ego – a completely separate expression of who you are. Some people can play it cool under even the most stressful situations, for the rest of us our reactivity takes a completely different identity of its own. These alter egos can be lumped into five categories, see which category your stress alter ego falls under and discover some personalized tips on how to keep it at bay.
The Doomsday Prepper
A rumor circulates that your company might downsize. You’re certain you’ll be the first to go and will be unable to pay rent or continue paying off your car loan. Suddenly, you’re overwhelmed by thoughts of spiraling negativity that trigger worry, anxiety and your worst fears. Regardless of whether the rumor is true, or if any of the stressors are a real threat you perceive everything as an end all and a complete disaster. You’ve already mentally prepared yourself for the worst and yet you still don’t seem prepared for anything that might come your way. The Doomsday Prepper alter ego feeds on your constant worry, fears and negativity which results in anxiety and high bouts of stress. The worst part is that this alter ego does not discern, the situation can be miniscule and even harmless, but it will still come to the worst possible conclusions imaginable. In short, you’re always ready for the worst – your own personal doomsday.
Curb Your Thoughts.
A group study performed at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh found that starting the day with a self-conscious mediation that focused your thoughts and feelings helps to perceive tense situations as less stressful. Additionally, the practice also helps provide an outside perspective to this ‘alter ego’. Once exposed, it gives you clarity and allows you to concentrate on the here and now and instead of ‘what could be’. To try this method, try an online-and-app program like Headspace ($8 per month), UCLA Mindful Awareness Research center provides free podcasts to help you along your practice or you can simply sit in a quiet spot of your home (free of distractions) and focus on your breathing and physical sensations. Try to work up your practice to at least 10 – 20 minutes a day.
The Deer in Headlights
Stress is simply a fight-or-flight response that most of us experience when faced with stress. Then there’s your reaction: shut down, cease or freeze when you are overwhelmed by any stressor. Basically, when the going gets tough, you stop going. This would be a great stress alter ego – if it was paired with the ability to become invisible. “Although freezing or your brain shutting down is a natural reaction to panic, some people might have inadequate or a poor stress response,” says Dr. Selhub. “Your adrenaline never gets going, so you stop and nothing gets done.” This kind of response can be common among individuals who experienced physical or psychological trauma and developed a coping mechanism that essentially left them numb. While helpful in the moment, this is extremely unhealthy. Avoiding stress and your personal stressors can lead to even greater stress and even develop into chronic stress, insomnia and even panic attacks.
Get a Grip.
“Low self-esteem can make you feel powerless, and the gear that taking action will result in failure leads to no action at all,” says Dr. Selhub. That’s why finding methods to boost your confidence can better equip you with dealing with stress experiences. Often this alter ego is simply used to evading or completely ignoring stressful situations because you are not confident enough in your ability to handle the situation. Try rolling out your sticky yoga mat and assume a warrior one pose. You’ll find that by asserting your body in physical situations will help boost your confidence and self-esteem. Can’t do it alone? Try joining a team sport like badminton, volleyball or basketball where you are surrounded by a group of people who will uplift you and make you feel better about yourself. Need an extra boost? Think of a time when you felt invincible, magnificent and in control. Now apply that mindset to your current situation. A little change in perspective can go a long way.
The Ticking Time Bomb“I’m fine,” is a recurring response when people ask if you are alright. You nod and feign a smile to reassure them, but deep down inside you’re ready to explode. You let your internal
thoughts eat away at you. You can’t eat. You can’t sleep. You’re always sick. And no one knows why. “People who internalize their feelings may experience a lot of physical problems,” says Dr. Selhub. “Even though you try to hide your stress, it still finds a way to break free. This is in the form of stress hormones that flood your body, and your digestive systems starts to malfunction, your immune system begins to shut down and inflammation can become rampant.” Ticking Time Bombs most likely grew up with severe trust issues and have no one to confide in. Some have even experienced their personal feelings or thoughts being outright ignored or neglected, causing them to recede. However, keeping your problems to yourself can cause a slew of health problems and even increase your risk of developing depression, heart disease or even cancer.
Open it Up. Whether you want to or not, schedule a get together with a close friend or family member. If that isn’t an option consider find a therapist that you feel comfortable with to divulge your inner turmoil. The point is to find a recipient of your output so that someone else knows what you are going through. Divulging your personal feelings and thoughts helps to develop a sense of trust which causes your brain to release feel-good hormones like dopamine and serotonin. These chemicals can help regulate your stress response. Additionally, building connections with people have shown to lower your blood pressure and heart rate and can even help you live longer.
The Tear Jerker
Your friend cancels on your last minute. Your supervisors drops a mean deadline on your desk. Your favorite mug explodes in the dish washer. Whatever the situation, big or small your first response is to break into tears. Stress that usually results in your tears and feelings of sadness points in the direction of depression. A study in Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory found that in about 20% of people, repeated stress activated a group of neurons in the front of the brain that strongly linked to depression. The Tear Jerker is (for lack of a better word) sensitive to all levels of stress and often equates each event to life ruining or worse. This kind of reaction can lead to chronic stress and depression which in turn can increase your risk of stroke by 59 and 86 percent respectively. Crying as a response is a coping mechanism for individuals who truly feel like they have no control or who don’t know how to respond to stress otherwise.
Pull the Plug. Feelings of sadness or depression can be combatted by simply picking up hobby. Basically anything to get your mind of your situation or the many situations that are affecting your stress levels. Run, dance, paint, bake – do whatever it takes (preferably what you love) to get out the door and force yourself to do anything else but to delve in your thoughts. At first, doing an activity can be a struggle, but overtime once you force yourself out that door your mind will find it more enjoyable than sitting on the couch or scrolling through your DVR.
Someone brushed against you on the staircase. That guy just cut you off in traffic. This long line at the coffee shop is infuriating. Any situation, big or small throws you into a fit and sometimes you find yourself exploding at even the smallest things. “You get angry when you feel as if someone or something is blocking you from achieving a goal,” Minkel says. Those who blow up when under stress tend to have an ‘all-or-nothing’ mentality, while great in certain situations, this type of thinking can lead to long term health problems. Constantly being ready to explode or doing it can causes changes in the nervous system that can increase your risk of a heart attack.
Take a Moment. The next time you’re facing a stressful situation, give yourself a moment before reacting. This pause can give you a chance to think about your behavior and can help you reassess the event. Acknowledging that not everything is as big of a deal as you once thought it was can help you understand that the world isn’t deliberately out to aggravate you. If the tension from the moment stays with you for the rest of the day, then go for a run, cycle or pick up a boxing class to help you let go of that steam.