HR Answers: What’s Your Stress Personality and Why Does It Matter?

stressed young female business leader in the workplace
Lauren Hodges, Ed.D. Photo
Speaker, Consultant, Performance Coach
Performance on Purpose LLC

4 minutes

When you're aware of your stress patterns, you can use this knowledge to build a happier, more resilient and higher-performing you at work and at home.

My husband and I react very differently to stress.

Just the other day, we’d both had very long days at work. We were outside talking through a big backyard renovation project, trying to figure out who was left to call: the concrete company, the electrician, the gutter guys … I was feeling overwhelmed with the growing to-do list and my busy work travel schedule, and he was worried about the timeline against his team’s impending budget season. I could tell his mind was running a million miles an hour when he said: “OK, let’s figure this out right now. I’ll grab a pen; let’s make a list and talk through the details.”

My response? “No! I don’t want to do that! I want to throw your list in the pool and go for a drive, because I can’t think about one more thing!” (Picture me throwing my hands in the air with a dramatic sigh).

All he wanted was to lean in and figure it out; all I wanted to do was run away, push it off and offload the anxiety I was feeling—alone.

Stress Personalities: An Emerging, Game-Changing Body of Research

This is a great example of how differently we all respond to stressful situations. Although we all have the same biological fight or flight response to stress, what recent research has found is that we all have very unique stress patterns—deeply embedded and persistent neural pathways of thought, emotion and behavior that we default to automatically when we experience stress—a “stress personality.”

We all have a “stress personality,” and we develop it over the years through so many variables:

  • Past stressful experiences or life-shaping moments
  • How stress was modeled for us as children by family, parents and caregivers
  • Community, schools, culture/geography, race, family, heritage and religion/spiritual practices
  • Education
  • Genetics (even perhaps epigenetics)
  • Our current and past work environments (think about bosses, co-workers, work culture; how change or urgency is handled; your boss’s and team’s actions, words or energy; how work/life balance is encouraged—or not)
  • Current and past relationships

It’s fascinating; all of these variables shape how we show up under stress and actually change the structure of our brain’s neural pathways over the years.

The interesting part is, we don’t all create the same patterns. In other words, we don’t all show up the same way when we are experiencing stress, hence my husband’s desire to lean into stress and figure it all out, but also his struggle with worry, change and uncertainty (he’s a card-carrying “Worrier” stress personality), and my tendency to lean away from stress—to push off, avoid, run away, beat myself up, and feel anxious and overwhelmed, especially when there are competing priorities floating around (I’m a “Runner”). What helps us varies too: He thrives off lists and Excel; I thrive off of a good walk in the woods … by myself.

Now, don’t miss this: What we stress about varies greatly from person to person, doesn’t it? We live very different lives with very different experiences (although we can probably agree to some shared stressors in the workforce right now: staffing and retention concerns, bench strength concerns, talent shortages, economic fear and uncertainty … all of which lead to high-stress, high demand work environments where teams are expected to do more with less. It’s a mess out there.) But there are some universal truths about stress and stress awareness:

When we’re not aware of our emotions, behaviors and thoughts in the moment, these unchecked “stress personalities” can impact our mental health, our happiness and our performance—not just as individuals, but as teams, organizations, partners, couples and families.

Don’t Worry: There’s Hope

The game changer is when you start to build awareness of your stress personalities and use this knowledge as a powerful tool to combat stress and build a happier, more resilient, more high-performing you in the process. You can use insight, reflection and intentional training to actually rewire the brain and start better responding to stress, not just reacting to it.

The more aware we are, the more effectively we can intervene on our unique stress personality. What works for me might not work for you. For example, I love space to breathe, taking small steps and unstructured meditation; my husband might benefit from talking things out with a friend, some guided meditation, and making detailed lists and plans.

Curious about your stress personality? Start small: Try keeping pen and paper nearby (even the notes section of your phone). Once every couple of days, reflect back and write down how you showed up to different stressful experiences: the predominant, most persistent emotions, thought patterns or behaviors. Over a couple of weeks, you’ll likely start to see some patterns. Try to take note of what helps you recover from stress too.

You can also take the stress personality quiz on my website if you want to think about this through various common stressful scenarios and try to narrow it down. Want to learn even more? Reach out, and let’s schedule some time to talk.

This research has changed the face of resilience and stress sciences. I hope it gets you a little closer to getting back in the driver’s seat of your stress.

Lauren Hodges, a speaker, consultant, human performance and well-being expert, and owner of Performance on Purpose LLC, a performance coaching company focused on advancing leadership and performance potential. She is passionate about helping others reach their highest potential, whether at work in their roles or at home in those relationships that matter the most.

Attend a Related Learning Event

Learn more about stress personalities from Dr. Lauren Hodges at TalentNEXT, September 10-12, 2023, in Savannah, Georgia.
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