Stress – Personality does play a role!

Personality plays an important role in almost every aspect of the stress and coping process. Our Personality has been linked to the likelihood of experiencing stressful situations, our appraisal of an event as stressful and your likelihood of engaging in certain coping mechanisms, and the effectiveness or outcomes of these coping mechanisms.

Influence of  personality traits on stress and our ability to cope with it.

I would like to emphasize that ‘coping strategies’ for stress cannot be a ‘one size fits all’ method.  It needs thorough individual assessment by a professional.  The objective of this episode is to merely trigger your thoughts and help you in self-reflection.

If you feel that you need a comprehensive assessment of how your personality will influence your ability to cope with stress, you could always write to me directly and I will be glad to help.

One model of personality that has been found particularly useful in understanding coping is the Five-Factor Model, a broad based taxonomy of personality dimensions that arguably represent the ‘‘minimum number of traits’’ needed to describe personality.

These personality traits are Neuroticism (N), Extraversion (E), Openness (O), Agreeableness (A) and Conscientiousness (C). While most of the research has predominantly focused on examining the role of N and E traits of personality in coping strategy, which has limited the study of the other trait influences on stress,


How can the five traits add meaning to our understanding of the stress and coping process?

Neuroticism (N). Individuals high on ‘N’ score on the Big Five scale are prone to experience negative emotions such as depression, anxiety, or anger and tend to be impulsive and self-conscious.

‘N’ has been found to be related to the use of coping strategies that are typically related to poorer outcomes such as an increase in end-of-day distress or increased anger and depression on subsequent days. Those with high scores on ‘N’ also know to be ‘reactive’ usually react emotionally to setbacks and can continue to worry for a long time. They remain focused on problems rather than solutions. Can take criticism from others personally and react to it with irritation. ‘N’ is also known to increase doubts on own abilities when faced with a setback, and can need some time to get oneself back under control.  The rebound time for such people is known to be long and therefore they may show tendencies to stay with their worries for prolonged periods of time.  This increases the chances of ‘stress’.

Those higher on ‘N’ have been found to use more passive or emotion-focused strategies such as escape avoidance, self-blame, wishful thinking, and relaxation, as well as interpersonally antagonistic means of coping such as hostile reactions, catharsis, confrontative coping or interpersonal withdrawal. Typically, they have also been found to report lower levels of problem-focused coping than do those lower on ‘N’ that is those who are ‘resilient’. Research also suggests that even when those higher on ‘N’ use putatively adaptive strategies, such as problem solving, the use of these strategies do not tend to result in positive outcomes. It’s seen that those with high ‘N’ tend to have difficulty managing their own ‘distress’ and so will be less able to deal with the ‘distress’ of those who are close to them.

Extraversion (E). Extraverts have a propensity to experience positive emotions and tend to be sociable, warm, cheerful, energetic, and assertive. As compared to those lower on E, research suggests that those higher on E engage in higher levels of problem-focused coping and employ less maladaptive forms of emotion-focused coping such as self-blame, wishful thinking, and avoidance.

Those with lower levels of ‘E’ known as ‘introverts’ have been known to have a preference to work alone. There serious, quiet and reserved and the predisposition to be business like in their interpersonal transactions makes them susceptible.  Add to their propensity to keep their opinions to themselves increases the chance of suppressing negative emotions which in turn could add to stress.

Individuals higher on E tend to use more adaptive forms of emotion-focused coping such as support seeking, positive thinking or reinterpretation, and substitution and restraint. While not all the findings regarding the role of E in coping have been consistent, several studies have shown high levels of ‘E’ positively associated with a variety of emotion-focused coping with interpersonal stress.  It has also shown to hold constant effect on other big five personality traits.

Openness (O). Those high on ‘O’ tend to be creative, imaginative, curious, psychologically minded, and flexible in their thinking. They are likely to experience a diversity of emotions, to have broad interests and a preference for variety, and to hold unconventional values.

Individuals with low scores on ‘O’ generally prefer the status quo to innovation, and simplicity to complexity. They seldom come up with new ideas or working methods, but stick to what has proven itself. They are predisposed to derive opinions from others.  When people with low levels of ‘O’ are confronted with rapidly changing circumstances which demand of them openness to newer experiences they might experience ‘stress’.  The way they would try to cope is by following conservative approaches, risk avoidance, maintaining status-quo and preferring not to rock-the-boat.  They would align with common opinions and avoid unnecessary stress of conflict.

The evidence for those with higher levels of  ‘O’ suggests they are more likely to employ humor in coping, to engage in positive re-appraisal and to think about or plan their coping.

Further, evidence suggests they are less likely to rely on faith and that they tend to respond empathically to close family members and friends even during times of stress. This latter finding has been interpreted to suggest that they are open to both their own feelings as well as to the feelings of others.

However, some studies have found no significant relations between ‘O’ and coping and others have found O to be only a weak predictor of coping.

Agreeableness (A). Those high on ‘A’ tend to be altruistic, acquiescent, trusting and helpful.  They carefully safeguard the needs and interests of others, often at the expense of their own interests. Usually people with high ‘A’ give-in rather than ending up in discussions or conflicts. They downplay the importance of their own accomplishments.  They are known to trust the word of others as long as there is no evidence to the contrary. They are careful to take into account other people’s reactions.

As opposed to those with low ‘A’, the one’s with higher ‘A’ and their propensity to keep others interests above their own might move towards building a ‘General Adaptive Syndrome’ in the long term.  Their anxiety to keep their interpersonal relationships intact makes them compromise more often leading to long term stress.

However, consistent with models of ‘A’, individuals higher on ‘A’ are more likely to cope in ways that engage or protect social relationships such as seeking support and avoiding confrontation. They appear less likely to employ emotion focused coping strategies such as self-blame, avoidance, wishful thinking, or disengagement as compared to those lower on ‘A’. Further, those higher on ‘A’ tend to use positive reappraisal and planful problem solving.

Conscientiousness (C). Those higher on C tend to be organized, reliable, hardworking, determined, and self-disciplined. Little research has examined the role of ‘C’ in coping, and the few studies that have been done have not always been consistent in their findings. In at least some studies, however, C has been found to be a strong predictor of coping styles. Along with N, C was a strong predictor of coping and has been found to be related to the use of more active, problem-focused strategies, such as planning, problem solving, positive reappraisal, and suppression of competing activities. Those higher on C are less likely to engage in avoidant, emotion-focused coping strategies such as self-blame  or distraction or disengagement.

While this being the case, some facets of high levels of ‘C’ in people like ‘perfectionism’ and ‘excessive’ result driven approach tends to adversely impact their ability to cope with stress.   The linear approach to solving problems are inability to be flexible and adaptable can lead to irritability and anger in a highly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world.

While almost all traits of the Big Five personality model i.e, Neuroticism, Extraversion, Openness, Agreeableness and Conscientiousness have some influence in triggering stress and your ability to cope; most studies have found that high levels of ‘N’ and ‘C’ have a lot to do with stressors in life.

If you feel that you need a comprehensive assessment of how your personality will influence your ability to cope with stress, you could always write to me directly and I will be glad to help.

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