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Why Do People Respond So Differently to Stress?

It depends on the situation and the person.

Key points

  • Stress affects everyone to one degree or another.
  • Some people are more affected than others.
  • Research suggests that feeling in control is the key difference.
Ervins Strauhmanis/Flickr
Control is key
Source: Ervins Strauhmanis/Flickr

An experience that one person perceives as a minor inconvenience could be a catastrophe to another person. This variability is one of the major unresolved issues in stress research. Here I highlight some characteristics that impact the stress response along with some of the consequences.

Let’s start with the characteristics of the events that cause stress. Laboratories around the world have examined a variety of experiences that elicit stress responses in rats. Uncontrollability is the primary characteristic of experiences that lead to a pronounced stress response—here defined as an increase in the release of stress hormones, development of stomach ulcers, and weight loss. In rats, this can be seen in studies in which two rats experience the same negative event—for example, exposure to shock.

One of the rats has control over whether they get a shock by turning a wheel when they hear a sound. The other rat gets the same shock as the first rat but can't turn off the shock and therefore is not in control of the situation. This second rat gets shocked whenever the first rat gets shocked. In situations like this, the second rat shows a far greater release of corticosterone (the rat equivalent of cortisol), larger stomach ulcers, and greater weight loss than the first rat, even though they both experience the same shock exposure (Weiss, 1971).

These results illustrate the beneficial effect of having control over a stressful situation. Both rats experienced the same shocks but the one with just a little bit of control over the situation showed far better health outcomes than the one without any control.

Similar results are seen in people. To assess this, people (typically college students) report to a laboratory and are asked to complete an impossible task. Such tasks may result in losing money if they don’t complete a video game within a very short time. In this case, their score in the game is not contingent on their performance. People in these scenarios produce a far greater cortisol response than people completing a game in which their score reflects their performance. This is even though the behavior required to complete these games is the same (Dickerson & Kemeny, 2004).

Why might control be such a potent protective factor against stress? Control allows us to estimate the duration and severity of a stressful situation. Marathon runners know exactly how many miles they’ll be on a marathon course (26.2). The runners have chosen to run a marathon, they’ve (hopefully) trained for it, and they have the autonomy to stop running at any time. Now imagine that you are forced to run a long distance, but you haven’t been given the distance, you haven’t had the opportunity to train, and you have no idea how long it will take. In this case, even a good athlete would show an extreme stress response. Control allows our minds and bodies to prepare for a stressor, ultimately reducing its negative impact.

Uncontrollability is a characteristic of stressful situations that impact our stress response.

But what traits make one person more susceptible to the effects of stress than another person? Many are familiar with the so-called "Type A" behavior pattern, characterized by aggressiveness, competitiveness, and hostility. While it's not a clinical diagnosis, anecdotally we may associate that pattern with high stress and a higher likelihood of stress-related illnesses such as heart attacks. A large clinical trial examining the relation between the personality characteristics that comprise the Type A pattern and health outcomes showed that high hostility was the primary predictor of cardiovascular disease, while characteristics such as competitiveness were not associated with negative health outcomes. This pattern held even when controlling for more well-established risk factors like high cholesterol and smoking (Dembroski et al., 1989). Another study showed that highly hostile men were more likely to die from any cause over 9 years, suggesting that hostility negatively impacts health in many ways (Everson et al., 1997).

Linking the trait factor of hostility back to the state factor of uncontrollability, maybe those with high hostility are more likely to interpret a situation as out of control. Such an interpretation may lead to elevated stress responses which, over time, lead to damage to the heart and blood vessels. People respond to stress differently, both in terms of their physiology as well as their behavior. Finding a way to gain control over a situation may be an effective way to reduce the harmful effects of stress.


Dembroski, T. M., MacDougall, J. M., Costa, P. T., & Grandits, G. A. (1989). Components of hostility as predictors of sudden death and myocardial infarction in the Multiple Risk Factor Intervention Trial.: Psychosomatic Medicine, 51(5), 514–522.

Dickerson, S. S., & Kemeny, M. E. (2004). Acute stressors and cortisol responses: A theoretical integration and synthesis of laboratory research. Psychological Bulletin, 130, 355–391.

Everson, S. A., Kauhanen, J., Kaplan, G. A., Goldberg, D. E., Julkunen, J., Tuomilehto, J., & Salonen, J. T. (1997). Hostility and Increased Risk of Mortality and Acute Myocardial Infarction: The Mediating Role of Behavioral Risk Factors. American Journal of Epidemiology, 146(2), 142–152.

Weiss, J. M. (1971). Effects of coping behavior in different warning signal conditions on stress pathology in rats. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, 77(1), 1–13.

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