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Your Stress Personality: How to Deal Healthfully

by Scott Haltzman, M.D.

2008-03-your-stress-personality-3.jpg
In 20 years of psychiatric practice, I’ve seen a lot of personalities. Pretty much every type has walked into my office at some point.

And guess what. Not everybody likes yoga. Nonetheless, everybody can learn to deal with life’s inevitable stresses in healthy ways—ways that fit our own unique selves—ways that help not only us but everyone who has to put up with us!


The four common stress types I’ve created below are not actual psychiatric diagnoses and not supported by scientific literature (although some do use terms frequently reserved for psychiatric classification). They simply reflect my clinical practice. And I’m betting you’ll recognize yourself— and a loved one—somewhere in here.


Stress Personality 1: Obsesive-Compulsive

On time, organized and in control ... usually.

2008-03-your-stress-personality-1.jpgIf you’ve got the OC stress personality, you’re probably reading this article with a pen and paper in hand to take notes—better yet, a pencil so you can erase in case you make any mistakes.

You’re the one who shows up exactly five minutes early for your appointments, with neatly polished shoes; a crisp, clean shirt; and a slightly annoyed expression. Why the sour puss? The person you’re meeting is late—failing to meet your standards.

When you’re stressed, you do what you do best: organize. You clean up desktops and check and recheck that all is in order. Keeping your ducks in a row makes you feel you have control.

Advantages: You’re predictable, keep your emotions under control and always have the phone charged in case of emergencies.

Disadvantages: Face it: Many stressful situations are simply out of your control. You’re prone to be frustrated with others who just don’t seem to pull it together during times of duress, and you’re likely to confuse them because you hold your emotions so tight to your chest. Your friends may think your attention to detail signals that you just don’t care, but nothing could be further from the truth. You’re simply trying not to let events control you, by trying to control events.

newsletter-graphicHealthy Tips: When you’re absorbed in a tense situation, take a moment and ask the people around you what emotions they’re experiencing. That will pull you away from the problem itself and steer you toward the human side of events. It will also give others the message that you care about their feelings.

Stress Busters: You don’t need this article to tell you how to reduce stress; you probably already have a file on that. One helpful tip you’ll never read, but that works perfectly for you, is to indulge yourself with unhealthy or unexpected things from time to time. Go for a run without a destination; read a book that has no moral message; eat a chocolate volcano dessert. Breaking a rule every now and then can be good for you.

Get expert-written articles like this every month in our free health newsletter.


Stress Personlity 2: Attention Deficient and Hyperactive

Living each moment as it comes, with distractions galore.

Ar2008-03-your-stress-personality-2.jpge you the ADH type? If so, you’ve probably already begun to read this article at least twice and no doubt misplaced the magazine once in the process. You live each moment as it comes. You may try to plan, but a distraction or procrastination foils you time and again.

When you’re stressed, you busy yourself with physical distractions (going from place to place or striking up random conversations) or mental distractions (flipping through television stations). When you experience intense distress, you’re likely to verbalize your annoyance and can be passionate! But you’re also likely to let go of your frustrations as quickly as they came.

Advantages: You give and attract energy. You’re able to distract yourself from stressful events and easily let go of them once they pass.

Disadvantages: Sometimes you produce a lot of motion but get few results. Your activity can unsettle others and occasionally heighten their own stress level.

Healthy Tips: Plan realistically, thus reducing your stress and that of those around you. For example, to make sure you arrive on time for appointments with friends, give yourself plenty of time between planned events. Always assume that things will last longer than expected and getting to the next place will take longer than planned. Your friends will shower you with praise when you show up on time, and you’ll feel more part of the action.

Stress Busters: There’s a world of stress-reducing choices out there for you; your problem is that you jump from one to another. You may take better care of yourself if you can stick to one thing. Spend a week trying out different hobbies or exercise regimes; then choose one. Schedule time for yourself every day: Plug it into your computer or cell phone. When the time comes to engage yourself, turn off all distractions (like the Internet and phone) and get to it.


Stress Personality 3: Me Versus the World
Fighting with (over?)vigilance.

2008-03-your-stress-personality-4.jpgIf you’re one of those people who sees the world through an eat-or-be-eaten mentality, you’re reading this article and thinking, “He really doesn’t understand me,” or, “I could write an article 10 times better!”

People with this kind of personality tend to feel that the world is an unsafe place. And they either feel like victims in it or become overly assertive to keep from becoming a target.

With this style of interacting, you tend to personalize stressful events and blame others for the problems that rain down on you.

Advantages: No potential problem escapes your attention, and you’re usually anticipating ways of avoiding danger.

Disadvantages: Sometimes you get stressed out over problems that aren’t there or tend to interpret events in the wrong way, causing friction between you and the people you care about.

Healthy Tips: When the walls feel like they’re caving in, ask your friends to help you interpret what’s happening. If they’re not alarmed, be prepared to lower your guard. That way, you’ll be better company and have more fun.

Stress Busters: When your caution circuits get lit, take out a pen and paper and write down all the evidence that you’re in danger, along with all the evidence that you’re safe. If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll see that usually the only thing you have to fear is fear itself. (Apologies to FDR.)


Stress Personality 4: Zen
Living in tranquility.

Just the opposite of the Me-Versus-the-World personality, you Zen folks aren’t usually ruffled by stress. You roll with things as they come.

Occasionally, your personality style is learned (as with Buddhist monks) or even drug-induced (for instance, regular marijuana use can dull responsiveness). But some people are just born with tranquility.

Advantages: Things don’t ruffle you the way they do other people, so you stay level-headed in times of crisis.

Disadvantages: Because your threshold for panic is low, you may not be as alert to real danger as you ought to be. Also, other people may view your serenity as disinterest and feel like you don’t take their concerns seriously.

Healthy Tips: If you occasionally show some outrage or unbridled enthusiasm, that’s actually OK—and may even help in your relationships. When you shout or circulate highfives, your friends will connect with you over your apparent connection to what’s happening. You can go back to your meditative state afterwards.

Stress Busters: Let’s face it; you’re a master of stress reduction. But it’s essential that you keep your physical health on par with your mental strength. Engage in a regular exercise regimen, even if you don’t need it to help with stress.

In fact, yoga might just be your cup of tea!

Board-certified psychiatrist Scott Haltzman, M.D., is co-author of The Secrets of Happily Married Men, The Secrets of Happily Married Women and The Secrets of Happy Families. He's also medical director of NRI Community Services, a behavioral-health provider in Woonsocket, R.I.


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Last updated and/or approved: May 2012.
Original article appeared in March/April 2008 former print magazine. Bio current as of that issue. This general health-care information is not meant as individual advice. Please see our disclaimer.

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