Personality Influences How People Respond to Stress

Have you ever wondered how some people can keep their cool even when they’re under extreme pressure? Or maybe you’re one of those people!

A new study from researchers in China suggests that personality could be part of it. In the study, participants were subjected to what psychologists call the Trier Social Stress Test, which is essentially a task that’s designed to be as stressful as possible. Yes, it’s just as much fun as it sounds!

The researchers identified three personality traits that correlated with how people responded to stress:

  • Neuroticism: a tendency to experience negative emotions like anxiety and anger
  • Extraversion: a tendency to be outgoing and energetic
  • Openness: a tendency to seek out new and varied experiences

So how did these personality traits shape the way people reacted to stressful situations? Well, for starters, you might have a sneaking suspicion that neuroticism, the tendency to experience negative emotions, wouldn’t be desirable trait in stress-provoking situations.

Interestingly, people with high neuroticism had some signs of a lower physiological response to stress: their heart rates changed less and they released less cortisol (the “stress hormone”) in the laboratory stress test. However, they also tended to experience a greater drop in mood in response to stress, and to perceive stress as less controllable.

On the other hand, when people scored high on extraversion, their mood was less affected by stress, and they had lower cortisol levels. People who were higher on openness also had more subdued cortisol responses.

Altogether, it looks like personality traits like neuroticism, extraversion and openness may play a significant role in how people react to stress. One thing to keep in mind is that not all stress is necessarily the same: this study looked at how people behaved in a short-term, socially stressful situation that involved being evaluated by other people. But what people who fared better in this situation also adapt well to other kinds of stressful situations, or to long-term stress? It’s not clear.

What is clear, though, is that personality has some affect on how people respond to stress. And, at least in some kinds of stressful situations, it appears that you could do worse than being a happy-go-lucky extravert who enjoys new experiences.

Image: Flickr/Kristin Andrus