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How to Cope with Stress Based on Your Personality Type

Multiple research studies support this fundamental idea about how to cope with stress: stress that is moderate and intermittent is the path to greater resilience. Too little or too much adversity is not good; we become strongest somewhere in the middle.

Resilience, once believed available only to a handful of lucky people, can arise from everyday stress and renewal. Habits of regular stress and renewal, tailored to your gifts and challenges, will strengthen you. That means regularly getting out of your comfort zone, physically, socially, and spiritually. But only you can know the boundaries of your comfort zone; only you can know all of the stressors you are experiencing; only you can know how much renewal you need and are getting.

3 ways to turn your stress into strength

Remember that your stress reactions, far from being the liability implied by ideas such as “toxic stress,” are gifts that allow you to rise to challenges, seize opportunities, and cope with stress. Your gifts only become problems when you overuse them.

  • Think of your physical stress response (fight or flight) as changes to your body that help you rise to material challenges, opportunities, and threats—acquiring, enhancing, defending, owning, and using things, including your body, finances, tools, and other possessions. Physical stress becomes strength when you activate renewal by resting and digesting.

  • Your social stress response (defend or distance) changes the way you think and feel. It helps you rise to the mental and emotional challenges, opportunities, and threats of dealing with people: enemies, competitors, teachers, coaches, mentors, family, communities, tribes—living, working, competing, cooperating, and playing with others. Social stress becomes strength when you activate renewal by tending and befriending.

  • Your spiritual stress response (selfish and survivalist) changes your values and perspective, leading you to focus more on immediate rather than long-term or big-picture concerns. It helps when you encounter challenges, opportunities, or threats to your priorities, urging you to focus more on yourself and those you care most about. Spiritual stress becomes strength when you activate renewal by pausing and planning.

Are your stress reactions a strength or an obstacle?

Your greatest gift becomes an obstacle when you overuse it as a strategy to fit in rather than cultivating connections where you belong as your true self.

  • The gift in fight or flight is power. Although having power can satisfy your stress autopilot’s desire for control, it becomes disconnecting when you are not the one in charge.

  • The gift in defend and distance is empathy. Although empathy satisfies your stress autopilot’s desire for companionship, it becomes disconnecting when you need to say no to others and pursue your own goals.

  • The gift in selfish and survivalist is safety. Although preparedness satisfies your stress autopilot’s desire for predictability, it becomes disconnecting when you need to act rather than gather knowledge and develop strategy.

Ways to Build Resilience Based on Your Personality Type

Now we will dive deeper into the three categories of gifts/weaknesses by mapping them to the Enneagram, an ancient tool for gaining insight into personality development.

Challenger, Mediator, or Reformer

If you tend to stay stuck in fight or flight, your gift/weakness is power, and you may be a Challenger, Mediator, or Reformer.

Challengers, Mediators, and Reformers undermine their resilience by habitually treating life as a fight-or-flight battle. Anger—the stress autopilot’s reaction to the present—underlies these types. If this is you, you are quick to say no and hold your own opinions tightly. You need to build strength to let go of idealism, to nurture mercy and unconditional love, and have the grace to accept progress rather than demanding perfection.

  • Difficulty belonging: When you are not leading.
  • Primary renewal need: Physical—rest and digest.

Helper, Achiever, Romantic

If you tend to defend or distance, your gift/weakness is empathy, and you may be a Helper, Achiever, or Romantic.

Helpers, Achievers, or Romantics undermine their resilience by habitually treating life as a chore of avoiding rejection. Anxiety—the stress autopilot’s reaction to the past—underlies these types. If this is you, you take too much responsibility, hold too tightly to appearances, planning how to impress others and solve problems that are not your own. Resign as general manager of the universe!

  • Difficulty belonging: When it feels like you have nothing to give.
  • Primary renewal need: Spiritual—pause and plan.

Observer, Questioner, Enthusiast

If your sticking place is selfish and survivalist, your gift/weakness is safety, and you may be an Observer, Questioner, or Enthusiast.  

Observers, Questioners, and Enthusiasts undermine their resilience by habitually treating life as a selfish and survivalist concern for their own safety. Worry—the stress autopilot’s fears about the future—underlies these types. If this is you, you tend to isolate, holding too tightly to your thoughts and imagination. To become more flexible, become less detached, engage, transforming information into wisdom, strategy into action.

  • Difficulty belonging: When you have to rely on others.
  • Primary renewal need: Social—tend and befriend.

Find your unique rhythm of stress and renewal

The idea that all stress is bad for you is dangerous; living in fear of stress will hurt you. We need stress— the right kinds of physical, social, and spiritual stress and renewal, in the right amounts, at the right intervals—to grow and to stay strong and flexible.

Renewal—pausing, resting, nourishing, taking care of yourself and others—repairs, restores, builds, and maintains physical, mental, and spiritual strength and flexibility. The right rhythms of stress and renewal can rewire your brain and reshape your body. This book’s goal is to help you discover and nurture natural, life-, and health-giving patterns of stress and renewal that your body, mind, and spirit need.

Adapted with permission from Stress Into Strength by Nick Arnett, copyright Nick Arnett.

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Nick Arnett

Nick Arnett is a Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) leader and instructor, fire chaplain, wildland firefighter/EMT, and former software founder/executive, journalist, and paramedic with experience in domestic and international disaster response in medical, communications, crisis intervention, and chaplain roles.

Arnett’s pocket reference guide, “Stress Management and Crisis Response,” is used by hundreds of public safety agencies, chaplains, and other front-line responders. He is also the author of “Resilience During the Pandemic,” an Amazon bestseller in short self-help books.

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