Last June, I lost my full-time job in a large-scale pandemic layoff. I was surprised I didn’t cry while getting the news over a video call. Instead, I had a fierce desire to “do something.”
Once I was off the phone and told my family, I disappeared upstairs to start figuring out my next step. Over the next few months, I took comfort in applying to jobs, writing cover letters, and doing freelance jobs — it made me feel like I was working toward something.
Three months later, my husband got the same kind of call. His reaction was different.
His anger, disappointment, and grief over the loss came immediately. He found it difficult to start strategizing about what to do next. Over the next few months, he found it stressful to put together job applications or plan for the future when the present was already so uncertain.
Instead, he found comfort in cleaning and organizing our home.
During crises or stressful life events, it’s common for people to react in very different ways. This is true even if they’re experiencing something similar, like a pandemic.
“We are living through a global trauma,” says Joyce Marter, licensed psychotherapist.
We hear about the number of cases and death rates on the news every day. How we experience and respond to pandemic life, though, depends a lot on how we cope with daily stress.
What happens when we experience stressful events?
“With any stressful event, different hormones are released,” explains Dr. Diana Samuel, psychiatrist at Columbia Doctors and assistant professor of psychiatry at Columbia University Irving Medical Center.
These stress hormones include adrenaline and cortisol. They can increase your heart rate, your blood pressure, and the glucose level in your bloodstream. This happens so that your muscles, heart, and other important organs have what they need to take action in an emergency.
“This is part of the fight-or-flight physiological response to stress,” explains Marter.
You usually can’t predict which response will come out. In the exact same crisis, some people may freeze, others may appear calm and collected, and others may even get combative.
“Some people respond to stress physically, with headaches, gastrointestinal symptoms, insomnia, etc.,” Marter says. “Some respond emotionally, with irritability, volatility, shutdowns, etc. And some respond cognitively, with difficulty making decisions, distractibility, or forgetfulness.”
This is why long-term stress can impact overall functioning, including productivity at work or your ability to manage relationships.ADVERTISEMENTTry a top-rated app for meditation and sleep
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So, why do people react differently to stress?
There are several reasons that some people react to stress one way while others have a completely different response.
The biggest factor is your overall resilience
Resilience to stress isn’t something we’re born with. It builds up over time, says Dr. Caroline Vaile Wright, senior director of healthcare innovation at the American Psychological Association.
“For example, we know that older adults report lower stress responses compared to younger adults,” Vaile Wright says. “It’s not because younger adults are weak or incapable, it’s just that older adults have had more time to develop coping skills and resilience following their own adverse experiences up to that point.”
Overcoming obstacles in the past helps you better cope in the present.
“We can grow from the challenges that we’ve encountered,” Vaile Wright says. “When we’re faced with a new one, we can look back and remind ourselves of how we overcame those previous obstacles.”
Marter agrees. “The more challenges you have successfully managed, the more likely you will be able to remain calm and be proactive,” she says.
This is because past experiences give you a sense of self-efficacy. You feel equipped to handle new situations when they arise because of what you handled in the past.
Your community matters, too
People who have more support from friends, family, clergy, or community also tend to fare better, as do people with more resources.
“Somebody who has access to basic needs, whether that’s healthcare, food, secure housing, or social support, is in a better place to deal with stressors than somebody who doesn’t have those things,” Vaile Wright says.
Our family life may affect our coping mechanisms, too.
“Many of us learn our default roles or responses [from] our families, and we tend to recreate those in our adult lives,” Marter explains. “If you were the oldest sibling who was frequently left in charge, you may feel more comfortable jumping into action because that’s the role that’s familiar to you.”
Your ‘locus of control’ can have an impact
“A person with an internal locus of control believes that they can create positive action in their lives through right action,” explains Marter. This is the type of person who’s more likely to try to remedy a stressful situation by taking proactive steps.
Meanwhile, “a person with an external locus of control believes that external factors determine their course in life,” she continues. “This person may feel like a victim and have feelings of hopelessness that anything they could possibly do wouldn’t help or matter.”
This type of person is more likely to feel overwhelmed by a stressful life event.
Your mental health before the crisis
“If somebody generally has positive mental health, they will be resilient and have the internal resources and coping skills to move forward,” says Marter.
“If somebody else deals with an underlying mental health issue, like anxiety or depression, it might be triggered by an event,” she adds.
People who have a history of repeated trauma may not cope as well — especially if they haven’t fully healed from those traumas. This is also true for people with low self-esteem.
“When we feel good about ourselves and trust in our ability to navigate through challenging situations, we can respond with more resilience and strength,” says Marter. “If we [have] feelings of inadequacy or somehow not being enough, we may feel very overwhelmed and ill-equipped to manage hardships.”
Your personality plays a part
Some people are just better under pressure than others.
“These are the people who become first responders, surgeons, and more,” says Marter. “We all have different strengths and challenges.”
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So, what are some things you can do to improve your coping skills?
Start by taking care of yourself
“Taking care of your physical body can really make a huge difference in how you respond emotionally,” says Samuel.
Mindfulness can also help you calm your body and help you keep your cool in a crisis, according to Marter.
You can try practices like:
Focus on what you can control
For example, during the pandemic, we can control how much stressful news we take in.
“If you know you’re somebody who has a really strong reaction to TV news and the pundits talking, maybe the better place to get your news is online or by setting yourself a block of time to catch up on the news,” Marter says.
Ask for help from your family or a professional
“As a therapist, I believe we have all experienced some level of trauma in our lives,” says Marter. “That’s why I believe we could all benefit from therapy or counseling to help us heal from past events and develop the self-care practices and support systems we need to persevere through challenges.”
This is especially important to remember right now as the pandemic rages on, Samuel adds.
“It doesn’t mean that you’re not allowed to be anxious or depressed,” Samuel says. “If you’re experiencing something and you know it’s off your baseline, it’s worth talking with an expert that can help you.”
Remember to be there for others, too
And the best way to do that? Just listen.
“One of the traps we tend to get stuck in is trying to fix someone’s problem or trying to fix them,” says Vaile Wright. “It’s really much more helpful to just listen, so they feel like they have someone to talk to.”
Don’t judge what they say either.
“Validate them,” she says, “even if you don’t understand exactly what they’re going through.”
While we may have similar feelings, it may look totally different from person to person.
“We all share the same set of emotions, so if they’re telling you they’re afraid, and you’re not right now, think of a time when you were afraid too and remember how that felt,” she continues.
This can help trigger empathy and understanding for the other person.
Marter agrees. “It’s important to have compassion… We need to have empathy for others and self-compassion for our own mental health challenges. We need to steer away from judgmental thinking, like somebody responded ‘better’ or ‘worse,’ and recognize we are all human beings doing the best that we can. We all need help sometimes.”
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