Causes of Stress Differentials Between Individuals

Shot of a mature couple looking worried while going through paperwork together at home

katleho Seisa / Getty Images 

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.

Internal and external resources can also be coping mechanisms. For example, external resources can include things we need from other people and internal resources can include mindfulness, meditation, imagery, and breathing.

Build Your Resources

  • Create strong friendships, so you'll have greater social support in times of stress.
  • Plan ahead in terms of time and money, so you'll have some reserves in case of emergency.
  • 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.
  • Anticipate a potentially difficult situation and create a plan for it. Even if the plan doesn't go as planned, you'll be better prepared by taking the time to anticipate it and plan for it.
  • Build your toolbox full of at least three go-to resources or coping mechanisms, including something internal where you don't rely on anything or anyone else.

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. 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.

Build Your Personal Resilience

  • Talk to a trusted friend in times of crisis, to gain support and perspective.
  • 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.
  • Certain stress management techniques (like meditation and exercise, for example) can build your resilience in the face of future stressors. Try them.

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. Any situation is neutral until you interpret the event, which is where your thoughts and feelings come into play. Your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors are all linked.

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.)

If you interpret the event/situation as a threat then that is going to lead to a different emotion and behavior. This comes from CBT and how our thoughts, emotions and behaviors are all linked.

Press Play for Advice On Dealing With Crisis Fatigue

Hosted by Editor-in-Chief and therapist Amy Morin, LCSW, this episode of The Verywell Mind Podcast shares strategies for dealing with crisis fatigue. Click below to listen now.

Follow Now: Apple Podcasts / Spotify / Google Podcasts

Change the Way You Look at Life

A Word From Verywell

If you're someone who gets stressed more easily, there are things you can do. Approach stress management from all different angles, including building your resources and resilience and changing the way you look at stressful situations.

By Elizabeth Scott, PhD
Elizabeth Scott, PhD is an author, workshop leader, educator, and award-winning blogger on stress management, positive psychology, relationships, and emotional wellbeing.