- Reactions to stress vary widely depending on individual traits.
- Specific personality traits, such as extraversion and openness, may buffer against stress.
- Effective stress management techniques can be helpful regardless of personality type.
A few years ago, I was assaulted out of the blue. Even though I was not seriously injured, it took me many months to recover from the trauma of the surprise attack. A couple years later, a dear friend of mine experienced an unexpected attack on the street, which arguably was more severe than mine, yet he said it left no significant mark on his psyche.
Why do people have such different reactions to stressful events? A recent study provided some clues. The research team examined the relationship between personality and stress (Luo et al. 2023), combining the results from 250 studies to find the most consistent results. People with higher levels of the following five personality traits (known as the "Big 5") reported less stress, even when subjected to objectively stressful experiences.
People who score higher in extraversion tend to find social interactions highly rewarding and participate in more social activities. The study authors suggested that more extraverted individuals have more social support available, which can buffer stressful experiences.
The researchers also noted that those high in extraversion are more likely to focus on the positive aspects of the stress. For example, someone who is moving might pay more attention to the nice restaurants and shops in their new neighborhood than to the difficulties involved in the move. I have to wonder if my friend focused on the fact that he fought off his would-be muggers, rather than on the danger and violence of the attack.
Not surprisingly, those who tend to have lower levels of negative emotions experience less stress; conversely, those who are higher in "neuroticism" (one of the Big-5 personality traits) are more likely to report high stress levels.
Luo and co-authors suggested that lower stress could come both from perception and from objective experiences; those who are high on emotional stability find situations to be less stressful and are also less likely to end up in stressful situations. There is also evidence that the sympathetic nervous system (the so-called "fight-or-flight" response) is less reactive among those with high emotional stability.
Those who are highly conscientious tend to plan ahead, which can minimize stress by preventing stressful situations from arising. They are likely to avoid taking risks and to take care of their health, as well, which also keeps stress at bay.
Individuals high on openness tend to be curious and creative, and open (as the label suggests) to a wide range of experiences. They also see situations as less stressful compared to those with lower levels of openness, and their nervous systems may be less reactive to stress.
Highly agreeable individuals are easy to get along with, which minimizes interpersonal stresses and creates opportunities for strong social connections. As a result, they experience fewer stressful experiences and have greater support available to them when they do encounter stressors.
Effective Stress Management
- Mindfulness practice: Release the struggle against stress, and practice opening to experience just as it is. Focus attention in the present when the mind is drawn to all the future worries and what-ifs.
- Progressive muscle relaxation: Follow along to a guided recording like this one to let go of tension in the body.
- Slow breaths: Take in a full, easy breath for a count of three, and exhale slowly to a count of six. Close your eyes if you like, and repeat three to five times (or longer).
- Mental reframing: Notice when your mind is making worst-case assumptions, and consider alternative ways of looking at things.
- Enjoyment: Plan fun activities into your day. Positive experiences can help to neutralize stress.
- Managing commitments: Reduce voluntary sources of stress by saying no when you can.
- Breaking down tasks: Check stressful tasks off your list by breaking each one into manageable pieces and completing them so they're no longer weighing on you.
- Tending to the body: Take care of yourself by eating healthfully, getting adequate rest, and exercising consistently.
Gillihan, S. J. (2022). Mindful Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: A Simple Path to Healing, Hope, and Peace. HarperOne.
Luo, J., Zhang, B., Cao, M., & Roberts, B. W. (2023). The stressful personality: A meta-analytical review of the relation between personality and stress. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 27, 128–194.