Categorize, then Change Your Response to Stress?


How do you handle stress?

Originally published in Harvard Business Review, a recent study indicated that 91% of us can improve our responses to stress. We CAN get better at dealing with stress.

How is it possible that some people thrive and even triumph over adversity and tremendous stress?

What seems to be of greater importance is not why we worry, but how we respond to stressors or environmental stimuli. When a challenge arises, it seems that our responses can typically be categorized along 3 specific dimensions:

  • Cool under pressure. Are you calm and collected, giving your brain a chance to see a path forward, or is your mind filled with anxious, worried, and stressful thoughts that wear you out?
  • Open communicator. Do you share your struggles with people in your life in a way that creates connections, or do you keep them to yourself and suffer in silence?
  • Active problem solver. Do you face challenges head-on and make a plan, or do you deny the reality of what’s happening in your life and distract yourself?


These 3 dimensions are central to our optimal responses to stress and also highly predictive of our long-term well being and success at work. It comes down to being what you think, say, and do that impact well-being. When we understand our shortcomings when responding to problems, we can shift out thinking and behavior to respond better. Thus, we avoid the emotional toll afterwards.

There are also subtypical  or suboptimal responses to stress called:

“Venters” and  “Five-Alarmers”.

Venters are highly expressive and therefore very open about stressful events in their lives, which is actually a very positive trait. Previous research shows that talking to others about challenges (without overdoing it) can connect us with the people around us and is associated with having more friends, close colleagues as well as greater happiness. However, Venters don’t fare as well along the other two dimensions: being able to maintain a cool head under pressure and active problem solving to devise a plan.

In other words, while Venters are able to acknowledge and communicate about their stress, that is where it ends.  They vent without  creating a positive action to respond to the stress. Venters have a correlation with decreased well-being, performance, and long-term career success, as well as with less overall happiness in life.

Five-Alarmers also are very good at communicating their stress, but while Venters stop there, Five-Alarmers take concrete actions to solve the problem. Because Five-Alarmers do not differentiate between low stresses and high stresses, they tend to respond to every stress as if it is a five-alarm fire and a massive emotional cost in the end. Being a Five-Alarmer is exhausting.  Experiencing consistent emotional spikes is also predictive of higher burnout and exhaustion, and guilt after you’ve made a decision.

Though more than half of us fall into one of these categories, a more adaptive response to challenge and stress is quite do-able.

Calm Responders are those who calmly and rationally respond, and generally enjoy the highest levels of success and happiness. They typically have a handful of trusted friendly advisors, and after conferring with one or two, quickly move to the action phase. Studies have shown those who are more expressive — without being so expressive that they get stuck in the venting phase have more friends and are happier.

Bottom line: All 3 dimensions aren’t static, but rather malleable and can change over time. Train yourself to be more calm the next time stressful events arise. Try these strategies:

  • Make a list of 5 stressful events in your past that you successfully solved. The next time you begin to feel your heart racing, remind yourself of those successes.
  • If you tend to bottle up your emotions or deny the stressful or negative events, pick up the phone and call a friend the next time a stressor arises.
  • If you distract yourself instead of creating an action plan, choose a  ‘do now’- a small, meaningful action you can take right away that may not solve the whole dilemma, but it will get you moving forward.

Re-wiring our default responses to stress may take some time, but can have a lifelong effect on our success and happiness. And, as I vow to improve my own responses to stress, let me know how mindful stress management works for you.


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