Physically, we all react the same way to stress: Our heart races, breath quickens, muscles tense and palms sweat. But emotionally? That’s a whole other story. Your M.O.—whether it’s to panic, shed tears or lash out—is something scientists call reactivity.
“Your level of reactivity is a complex combination of your environment—for example, how you were raised—and your genes,” says Daniel Mroczek, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. Your life experiences, parents and personality all shape how you respond to stressors. Reactivity is mostly determined from an early age, but it isn’t set in stone. “You always have a choice to change how you react to a stressor,” explains Eva Selhub, M.D., a clinical associate at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
People who are truly cool as cucumbers even under stress do exist, but the rest of us tend to fall largely into one of five categories. See which one sounds the most familiar and follow the personalized tips to relax already.
You find out that your company is being sold. You’re certain you’ll lose your job and default on your mortgage. Before you know it, you’ve spiraled into a dark hole of worry, anxiety, negativity and fear. “Regardless of whether stressors are a true threat or not, you perceive everything as a disaster,” Mroczek says. Overall, you’re extremely sensitive and feel emotions—both good and bad—more strongly than other people do. “It’s like having an emotional sunburn,” adds Jared Minkel, Ph.D., a psychologist at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina. “You always feel it, but it hurts a lot more when you press on it.”
Your stress Rx: Start your day with mindfulness meditation, in which you focus on what you’re thinking and feeling and nothing else. After just three days of brief sessions, participants who learned the technique perceived a tense situation as less stressful than nonmeditators did, according to a study from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Many reported that the habit helped them see how they were reacting, which enabled them to concentrate on the task at hand, instead of getting caught up in their emotions about it. To do it, try an online-and-app program like Headspace ($8 per month, headspace.com), podcasts from the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center (free, marc.ucla.edu) or simply sit quietly and pay attention to your breathing and your physical sensations. Work up to at least 10 minutes a day.
The Deer in the Headlights
There’s the fight-or-flight response most people experience when stressed. Then there’s what you do: freeze or shut down whenever you feel overwhelmed at work or have a fight with a friend. That’s a handy survival mechanism if you’re a lizard trying to blend into your environment to evade predators. But it’s not so helpful for humans. “While freezing can be a sign of panic, people who shut down under stress might have an inadequate stress response,” Dr. Selhub says. “Your adrenaline never gets going, so you stop and nothing gets done.” Perhaps you experienced physical or psychological trauma early in life and learned to cope by going numb, but that’s unhealthy. Avoiding, rather than facing, stressful situations is associated with even greater stress as well as an increased incidence of insomnia, a study in Sleep found.
Your stress Rx: Unroll your sticky mat. While the relaxing benefits of yoga can’t hurt, there’s another reason to get your down dog on regularly. Doing so relieves fatigue and boosts self-esteem. “Low self-esteem can make you feel powerless, and the fear that taking action will result in failure often leads to no action at all,” Dr. Selhub says. But boosting your confidence shifts your perspective so that stressful experiences become challenges not threats. To do this on the fly, “think of a time when you felt successful, invincible or magnificent and then imagine yourself in that experience again,” Dr. Selhub instructs. Conjuring up those sensations reminds you that you’re capable of feeling that way regardless of the circumstances and empowers you to take action.
On the surface, you appear calm and collected. But inside, you’re totally freaking out. You can’t sleep. You can’t eat. You’re sick all the time. And no one knows. “Imploders may experience a lot of physical problems because they don’t express any of their feelings,” Dr. Selhub says. “When you aren’t dealing, your stress response keeps firing without any outlet. As a result, stress hormones flood your body, and your digestive system can shut down, your immune system can stall and inflammation can become rampant. Eventually, if you are susceptible, your risk of developing depression, heart disease or cancer can increase.”
Your stress Rx: Schedule a date with your closest friends stat. You may have grown up in a family in which no one talked about personal or difficult issues, but that’s exactly what you need to do. When you feel supported, you’re able to let down your guard and share what you’re going through, Dr. Selhub says. This sense of trust causes your brain to release feel-good hormones like dopamine and serotonin, which help regulate your stress response. Research shows that feeling connected to other people lowers your blood pressure and heart rate when you’re in tense situations and can even help you live longer.
A last-minute meeting that interferes with your jam-packed schedule equals tears. A minor disagreement with your partner equals tears. If stress usually sets off waterworks and feelings of sadness, you may be headed toward the big D. A recent study from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York suggests that in about 20 percent of people, repeated stress may activate a group of neurons in the front of the brain that are strongly linked to depression. “Your emotional reactivity has a lot to do with how you perceive stressful experiences,” Minkel says. “If you feel as if an event is ruining your life and it’s never going to get better, then you’re more likely to feel depressed.” Chronic stress and depression can be a deadly combo. They increase your risk of stroke by 59 and 86 percent, respectively, according to an American Heart Association study, and are associated with obesity, heart disease and diabetes.
Your stress Rx: Run, dance, paint, cook—do any activity you love, even if you have to force yourself. “When you’re stressed and depressed, the parts of your brain that produce positive feelings don’t function properly,” Minkel says. “But doing things you enjoy jump-starts those regions.” At first it may seem like a struggle to make it through an art class and only marginally better than sitting on your couch and scrolling through your DVR, but stick with it. Most people notice a boost in mood after they rediscover their old hobbies, Minkel says.
A long line at Starbucks can throw you into a fit of fury. “You get angry when you feel as if someone or something is blocking you from achieving a goal,” Minkel says. People who blow up when they’re stressed tend to abide by all-or-nothing thinking, says Mary McNaughton-Cassill, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Even the littlest snag can set them off. Learning to put a lid on your rage could save your life. Anger can cause changes in the nervous system that might lead to a heart attack, research shows.
Your stress Rx: When you encounter a stressful situation, pause for a minute. “It gives you a chance to think about your behavior rather than lashing out,” McNaughton-Cassill says. Now reframe what’s happening. Maybe the driver who cut you off just had a fight with her spouse and now she’s distracted. Realizing that she may not have been deliberately trying to aggravate you can extinguish your impulse to explode.