Stress strikes us all. But not all of us can handle it equally. Our personal makeup and social-economic situation can make it easier or harder to handle the pressure.
In her book Worried Sick, Deborah Carr, chairwoman of the sociology department at Rutgers University in New Jersey, provides a fascinating, detailed look at five broad factors that help determine why some people crumble and others bounce back: Coping strategies, personality, demographics, social support, and genetics.
It's worth reviewing those elements to understand your own situation, but also to understand how others around you respond to stress, and how you might help them out.
"We need some empathy for people who can't cope well," she said in an interview. "We have a Western way of thinking that if someone has a problem, it's a problem they created. Often, it's beyond their control."
Our strategies for coping tend to be either problem-focused or emotion-focused: Attacking the source of the stress or, alternatively, focusing on allaying our emotional or physical distress in the difficult situation.
In general, she says it's considered better to focus on changing the situation – removing the stressor or reducing its impact on your life. If you lose your job, try to find another one, or improve your job skills if that's the ultimate source of the problem. But this approach doesn't work after a spouse dies. That problem isn't subject to change. You have to deal instead with the emotions afflicting you.
The problem-focused approach also won't work in situations where people are trapped by their social-economic status or facing racism.
"It's a luxury to be able to deal with stress through a problem-focused approach. You need to have the resources to change it," she said. But when attacking the problem leads to a solution, it can be empowering or liberating. She points to a woman who gets a divorce to escape an abusive spouse or the person in poverty who secures a job. That sets them up to handle future stressful situations more ably.
Emotion-focused strategies can help, from expressing your negative sentiments through yelling or crying; soothing feelings through relaxation techniques or meditation; finding humour in the situation; or turning to spiritual pursuits. But she notes in the book that dwelling on our negative thoughts – "stewing in our own sadness" – can add to the distress.
Personality can determine how effective we are in handling stress. Type As, with their tightly wound, intense behaviour, can bring stress onto themselves as they seek greater challenges and are overly conscious of time pressures, while Type Bs, being more laid back, are likelier to roll with the punches.
"If your heart rate goes up waiting for an elevator, that's not a good sign," she said of Type As. Faced with stress, Type As might try to climb a mountain while Type Bs might take a nap by the mountainside.
Optimists are generally thought to handle stress better than pessimists, for the reasons Winston Churchill expressed: "The pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty." But she notes that social commentator Barbara Ehrenreich has attacked the notion that just thinking positive thoughts will melt away our stressors, claiming some people are positive because everything has gone their way in life. It has also been suggested that optimism taken to the extreme – unrealistic optimism – is associated with ineffective coping.
Prof. Carr also highlights the five-factor model, one of the most widely used measures of personality, which looks at neuroticism, extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. All can influence our ability to handle stress. Extroverts, for example, welcome people into their lives, which can give them support in times of woe, whereas introverts can push people out of their lives. Neurotics can experience stress that isn't really present. Conscientious people can bring stress upon themselves but also are strong at mobilizing resources to deal with the problem. Some studies show people who are open to new experiences tend to be creative problem solvers, a handy anti-stress tool. Agreeable people tend to have less stress in their lives, if only because they tend to find themselves in, or consciously create, situations marked by low levels of interpersonal conflict and stress
The stressors we experience and the resources to deal with them are heavily influenced by demographic factors such as age, sex, race or ethnicity, and social-economic status (SES). "Low SES increases one's risk of stressful life events, ranging from divorce to job loss to early onset of health problems, as well as chronic stressors, including overcrowded or dilapidated living conditions, marital stress, and discrimination," she writes.
In the interview she noted that people of colour and immigrants are exposed to stressful situations because of who they are. Women and men react differently to stress, with women more likely to be depressed and men turning to drinking or aggressive behaviour.
The single most important factor distinguishing those who crumble from those who are more resilient is probably social support – having someone to lean on. Many studies show the importance of social ties helping to ward off the health-depleting effects of stress. But she points out that our culture can undermine that resource: "In the United States, and perhaps in Canada, there is a strong feeling we should all be independent. But we need others."
Genetics can also play a factor, notably whether we are like orchids, susceptible to stress and likely to wilt, or dandelions, hardy wildflowers. You should be empathetic with friends who can't handle stress well; it may just be in their genes.
"Stress is universal. The problem is it takes its toll on us emotionally and physically. So we as a society need to minimize stress and help people in stress. We also need to recognize people respond differently – we all have different resources," she concludes.
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column, Balance. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org