Determining Your ‘Stress Type’
Ever wondered if you were just the “stressful type”? Well, you might be one of four, according to two doctors who have identified four personality traits that women adopt when they become stressed. With tips on how to control it and even use it to your advantage, though, it may not be such a bad thing, writes Kate Hodal
LOUISE Cooper is a well respected trial lawyer, admired by friends and family for being able to juggle children, social engagements, charity work, her marriage, a busy practice and demanding trial work without so much as batting an eyelid.
But whenever she has a chance to stop the daily grind and finally relax by taking time out for herself or going on family vacations, she crashes, becoming exhausted, withdrawn and quiet. After a few days, she recovers and begins multitasking again – so much so that she ends up crashing. It’s a cycle that never seems to stop.
If this sounds like someone you know, perhaps it’s because Louise’s response to stress is a common one.
Both her stress hormone, cortisol, and her natural fight-or-flight response modes are acting in overdrive.
This kind of reaction is called a “Hyper-P” stress response and is just one of four stress “types” that two California-based doctors have identified in their recent work on stress.
According to Dr Stephanie McClellan and Dr Beth Hamilton, both gynaecologists, women are not only under greater stress than ever before, but stress is creating many seemingly unrelated health problems, such as insomnia, decreased libido, increased appetite and headaches.
And while stress isn’t a concept unique to women, the way that it affects women is, says Dr McClellan.
“Women are naturally better than men at multitasking and, as they meet the pressures of the modern world, they increasingly take on more and more roles,” she explains.
“But they’re also more prone to stress, and their bodies are unable to handle the effects of stress because our biology has not changed to accommodate the new demands of our multiple roles.”
Hamilton and McClellan discuss this issue in a new book on their years of clinical research on stress, called So Stressed: A Plan for Managing Women’s Stress to Restore Health, Joy and Peace of Mind.
It not only identifies the way that stress affects four different major personality types, it also includes tips on fighting stress through nutrition, exercise and relaxation techniques unique to each type.
While a person’s reaction to stress may vary according to their environment, genetics and experiences, the theory the doctors put forward is that, by identifying your own stress type, you can help determine what techniques will help you relax more easily.
Vigilant, on edge and anxious, Hyper-S types are prone to headaches and sinus infections, have trouble falling asleep, wake up during the night and rise early in the morning. (“S” represents the sympathetic nervous system activated in the fight-or-flight response).
Their high levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, coupled with their intense fight-or-flight response, means that Hyper-S’s “consider every task an emergency and can be emotional, expressive and sometimes explosive”, says McClellan.
Hyper-S women tend to have the most stress-related illnesses out of all four types, prone to developing hardening of the arteries and heart disease, or suffering from alcoholism, sexual dysfunction, type-2 diabetes, yeast infections, panic disorder and infertility.
Reducing your stress level through exercise is key, says McClellan, as it will use up all that extra energy produced from stress.
“A regular, vigorous workout at the start of your day will defuse the tension you carry in your mind and body and make your brain more resilient and less stress-sensitive.”
Hyper-S’s should also avoid drinking coffee as it promotes extra cortisol production, and drink green or white tea to wake up instead. Breakfast should be the largest meal, with smaller meals and snacks set for the rest of the day to minimise the effects of a nervous stomach.
Hypo-S types tend to accumulate pain in their back, pelvis, bladder or vulvar areas, gain weight around their hips and thighs and are often overweight.
They go to sleep late and wake up late, find it hard to concentrate, feel unmotivated and can suffer from gastrointestinal disorders, postpartum depression, chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia.
Their low cortisol levels may be the result of long-term exposure to chronic stress, perhaps in the womb (if they were the product of a stressful pregnancy) or in childhood (if they moved around a lot, for example).
“As a Hypo-S, your major vulnerability is your extreme sensitivity to stress,” says McClellan.
“You can control your overly excitable stress response by anticipating and managing potentially stressful situations.”
Eating a diet rich in fibre from fruits and vegetables at the same time every day will stabilise your cortisol rhythm. Big lunches – of lean meat with complex carbohydrates – will help cortisol production, too.
Exercise is also essential, ideally at the same time every day, as “regular aerobic activity will stimulate the production of endorphins, which will make you feel better”.
“Hypo-P is the rarest stress response, as it is an extreme state caused by a severe imbalance,” says McClellan.
(“P” represents the parasympathetic activity in the body, which happens when your body is resting and restoring stress levels).
“It occurs when both your stress hormone, cortisol, and sympathetic nervous system, which arouses your body to challenge, are in sync, but functioning at chronically low levels.”
The result is an emotional detachment characterised by speaking in a monotone, suffering from aches and pains, rarely expressing one’s emotions, fainting easily and getting dizzy when standing up suddenly.
Asthma, ulcerative colitis, inflammatory disorders and helplessness are all typical ailments of this type.
But high-fibre foods such as fruits and wholegrains, and probiotics, will help this type, says McClellan.
“You also need to remember to be very specific and consistent in the timing of your meals as this will help synchronise your body’s rhythms.”
Keeping a journal of physical and emotional feelings will also help you connect to your feelings, helping you to engage with the world and generate a sense of control.
The Hyper-P is the classic overachiever, like Louise, who goes, goes, goes until collapsing, says McClellan.
“Even on a weekend or a vacation, when a Hyper-P woman has time to relax, she tends to overshoot.”
Hyper-P’s tend to feel fatigue, altered mood and a lack of initiative or motivation when they burn out. Blurry vision, a need for sleep, lack of energy and feeling overemotional are all symptoms of this state.
“Instead of reaching a balanced state, the Hyper-P’s nervous system goes from being in high gear to crashing, so she has to learn how to prevent her collapses and restore herself after a meltdown.”
Hyper-P’s might find that some pampering can help deal with stress, such as a hot bath, and that vigorous exercise will help balance their high amounts of stressful energy.
Small meals and snacks eaten throughout the day will help maintain energy levels. Coffee should be taken only in the morning, because, after noon, it can disrupt a Hyper-P’s delicate sleeping patterns.
So Stressed: A Plan for Managing Women’s Stress to Restore Health, Joy and Peace of Mind, by Stephanie McClellan and Beth Hamilton, is published by Simon & Schuster, priced £10.99. Available now.
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