Why Life Stressors Affect People Differently

Taking a closer look at how our family of origin impacts our reactions.

Posted Nov 04, 2020

 Vera Arsic/Pexels
Source: Vera Arsic/Pexels

The more present anxiety is in a family, the larger the strain on one’s ability to adapt in life.

If you accidentally bump into someone at the grocery store, the person you bump into might say, “No problem. Have a good day"; they might not say anything at all and give you a negative look; or they might be rude and say something like, “Watch where you’re going, idiot!” We’re all different in how we respond to people, how we take things, and how we deal with day-to-day life. But why? Why do we all react so differently to the same situation?

To answer, we have to take into consideration each individual’s current stressors and family history. Once we start looking at people within their personal context, it’s actually pretty easy to see why they react to situations the way they do. 

Ever notice how some people have a really hard time in life while others seem to breeze through it enthusiastically? Some people can barely hold themselves together when something bad happens; even when it isn’t that serious, they complain and respond with a lot of drama. Others can have their world fall apart, but somehow keep it together and face their problems head-on, with a clear and rational mind. We all know people who keep it together, even in the face of a major tragedy, and others who fall apart at a drop of a dime.

So, what allows some people to deal with life situations much better than others? Do they go to a lot of yoga classes or drink some special blend of tea? Do they have a superior outlook on life? Are they stronger than the rest of us? Or are they just born like that? Certainly, some of these variables can either help or hinder our reactions; however, focusing on a single answer leaves major blind spots that get in the way of understanding the real culprits. 

We can say that, due to a number of variables, people react to life stressors in some helpful and not so helpful ways. However, I would argue that our reactions are mostly influenced by the level of chronic anxiety in our family of origin and the amount of stress we’re experiencing in our lives at any given time.

According to research, if we take a closer look at ourselves and our family histories, we can predict—and possibly change—our behaviors when life throws tough stuff our way. We don’t have control over the current level of chronic anxiety in our families, and we often have very little control over the stressors we face; the only thing we can control is how we respond to those stressors. That’s the one variable we can learn to change, once we have a better understanding of our family history and, of course, our own natural reactions to things. Learning to better respond to situations, people, and life events has a lot to do with becoming more independent, confident, and comfortable with our ability to overcome obstacles on our own. Once we do that, we start the process of decreasing anxiety in many areas of our lives. 

If you come from a highly anxious family, your response to stress is more likely to be impaired. If you come from a less anxious family, on the other hand, your tolerance for stress is much greater, and you’re able to adapt more easily.

I know that doesn’t seem very fair. We don’t choose the families we’re born into, or the curveballs life throws our way. It’s hard enough to get through life, but it becomes much harder when you’re basically anxious and agitated all the time. The more anxious we are, the more emotionally reactive we are to the people we come into contact with, and to life in general.

Anxiety can be seen as its own category of emotional reactivity, given the exaggerated sense of awareness and fear of the future it brings. When we’re chronically anxious, we tend to be more aggressive, angry, snappy, and quick to judge. We tend to think the worst of situations and people. Other chronically anxious people might be emotionally reactive in other ways; they might, for example, internalize all those aggressive feelings. Some people let it all out, while others take a more passive response, managing their emotional reactivity by stuffing down their feelings instead of releasing them.

Both types of people are chronically anxious, but they manage their emotional reactivity in different ways. One isn’t necessarily better than the other, and both reactions are problematic in their own ways. Despite reducing the feelings of anxiety in the moment, neither approach is useful in solving the actual problem of chronic anxiety, and neither will help you become more independent; they’re just ways to release or push away the anxious feelings.  

Anxiety Variations 

Our level of anxiety within ourselves and our families naturally changes over time. However, we do maintain a general range of chronic anxiety, within ourselves and our families. Your chronic anxiety levels don’t have to do with external stressors, so much as with what you learned in your most crucial developmental stages, and how you carry that with you throughout your life. “This learning occurs on several levels, ranging from the seemingly osmotic absorption of parental anxieties to the incorporations of subjectively determined attitudes that create anxiety, such as low self-esteem” (Michael Kerr, MD & Murray Bowen, M.D., Family Evolution). 

Every family has its own average level of chronic anxiety, which is the product of the emotional structure within each family member, and the ways in which all family members impact each other. Because our families of origin vary in their levels of emotional maturity and chronic anxiety, we all differ widely in how we respond to stressors, life events, random strangers, and family members. Imagine that you were preprogrammed to believe that you’re unworthy because of your social status or gender. This idea, that you’re inferior on the basis of some aspect of who you are, will create anxiety in your life. Now imagine that you’ve adopted this attitude as your own, based on years of associating with a certain member of your family. Repeated interactions with this person have led you to develop a perception of yourself as unworthy, and because of this, you’re now susceptible to a lot more difficulties. The likelihood is, you won’t have enough faith in your own abilities to face struggles head-on; you might look to others to help you, creating more dependence and anxiety in your life.