Why Do Stressors Affect People Differently?

Here Is What Makes The Effects of Stress Unique

stressed out man in front of a chalkboard
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Have you ever noticed that some people seem to thrive in chaos, while others get overwhelmed by even positive changes in their lives? Stress is a highly subjective experience. While many of us are stressed by roughly the same things — jobs, money, being overscheduled, relationship conflict — different people may react more or less strongly to the same situation for several reasons:

Differences in Resources

One widely-accepted definition of stress is that it’s what occurs when the perceived demands of a situation outweigh one’s available resources. This leads people to perceive themselves threatened, which triggers the body’s stress response and the experience of "being stressed." Therefore, the level of resources one has available can make a significant difference in whether someone experiences stress in a given situation. It’s also important to note that "resources" refer to external factors such as physical and emotional assistance from others, money, and other physical resources, as well as internal factors such as knowledge, experience, and courage. The difference in available resources is a major factor in why two people may face the same situation and experience it differently.

Differences in Physiology

Some people are naturally more sensitive and reactive to stress. Differences in temperament, a collection of inborn personality traits that can be observed as early as infancy, can cause some people to be naturally more resilient in the face of stress while others can feel more threatened and less able to cope. (Read this piece on self-sabotage for more specific information on that.) While we can’t change the temperament we were born with, we can become more aware of our predispositions and work around them by building up skills that may compensate for certain sensitivities, or structure our lifestyles to minimize certain stress triggers.

Differences in Meaning Associated With Circumstances

Another factor that affects whether a situation is perceived as "stressful" is the meaning that people find in the situations. Having a sense of control in a situation, for example, can make it feel much less threatening and more empowering. (Think of people with very few possessions because they are choosing a lifestyle of voluntary simplicity versus those who have very little because they’ve lost most of their assets in a poor economy.) Looking at the same situation as a "challenge" instead of a "threat" can make a potentially stressful experience feel invigorating instead of overwhelming. (Think of doing work that utilizes your talents and abilities versus work that’s monotonous or just too hard — doesn’t it feel different?) And cultivating an attitude of gratitude can help you see the potential gains of a situation rather than only the difficulties. (Many people talk about "looking for the gift" in a crisis.)

What does this mean for you, especially if you're someone who gets stressed more easily? For one thing, you can approach stress management from all different angles. For example:

  • Build Your Resources
    1. Create strong friendships, so you'll have greater social support in times of stress.
    2. Plan ahead in terms of time and money, so you'll have some reserves in case of emergency.
    3. Try to have a "plan B" in case things go wrong. This doesn't mean you always think that the worst-case scenario will happen or that your "plan A" is destined to fail, but rather that you're prepared for anything.
  • Build Your Personal Resilience
    1. Talk to a trusted friend in times of crisis, to gain support and perspective.
    2. Give yourself time to process what's going on in your life (through journaling, for example) before immediately reacting. It's helpful (but not completely essential) to have a spiritual focus that works for you.
    3. Certain stress management techniques (like meditation and exercise, for example) can build your resilience in the face of future stressors. Try them.
  • Change the Way You Look at Life
    1. Work on cultivating a sense of humor about things.
    2. Practice seeing the world as an optimist.
    3. Try other reframing techniques.
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