Physically, we all react the same way to stress: our heart races, breath quickens, muscles tense and palms sweat. But emotionally? Your life experiences and personality shape how you respond to stressors—whether you panic, shed tears or lash out. Your 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 resiliency coach and author of The Love Response.
The reactions we have to stress fall into five common categories. See which one below sounds most familiar, and follow the tips to help yourself relax.
If you’re not sure how you usually respond when things go wrong, keep a one- to two-week log of every time you feel stressed. Write down the trigger and then answer these questions: What thoughts did I have? How did I feel physically? How did I feel emotionally? How did I behave? Focus on the reaction that’s strongest or bothers you most. If identifying your type still seems murky, ask a close friend or family member which description fits you best.
You get a C on an exam. You’re certain you’ll get kicked out of school and never get a job. Before you know it, you’ve spiraled into a dark hole of anxiety, negativity and fear. “Regardless of whether stressors are a true threat or not, you perceive everything as a disaster,” says Daniel Mroczek, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Northwestern University. Overall, you’re extremely sensitive and feel emotions—both good and bad—more strongly than other people do.
Want to feel less stressed? Start your day with mindfulness meditation in which you focus on what you’re thinking and feeling and nothing else. This helps you recognize how you react to difficult situations, and enables you to concentrate on the task at hand rather than being paralyzed by negative emotions. Look for free meditation apps or videos, or simply sit quietly and pay attention to your breathing and your physical sensations. Work up to at least 10 minutes a day.
Do you freeze or shut down whenever you feel overwhelmed by schoolwork or have a fight with a friend? “While freezing can be a sign of panic, people who shut down under stress might have an inadequate stress response,” Selhub says. “Your adrenaline never gets going, so you stop and nothing gets done.” Unfortunately, avoiding (rather than facing) stressful situations is associated with even greater stress.
The solution? Unroll your sticky mat. While the relaxing benefits of yoga can’t hurt, there’s another reason to get your down dog on. 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,” Selhub says. Boosting your confidence shifts your perspective so that stressful experiences become challenges, not threats.
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,” Selhub says.
To help yourself cope, schedule quality time with your closest friends. You may have grown up in a family in which no one talked about personal issues, but that’s exactly what you need to do. 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 feeling depressed. “Your emotional reactivity has a lot to do with how you perceive stressful experiences,” says Jared Minkel, Ph.D., a psychologist in Providence, Rhode Island. “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.”
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.”
A long line at the coffee shop 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. But 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.
Instead, when you encounter a stressful situation, pause for a minute to 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 probably wasn’t deliberately trying to aggravate you can extinguish your impulse to explode.