What’s your stress response type?

Before I get into helping you identify your stress response type, I want you to know that in this post I’m going to make some assumptions about you. I’m going to assume that you experience stress. Almost every day. And that your stress is usually at a level that you’re not really comfortable with but that you tend to power through, in your own way. 

And, if you could, you would reduce the stress in your life so that you could feel more peace and joy.

Does that sound about right?

If so, then you’re in the right place.

{skip right to the 4 types}

What do I mean by “stress response type”?

Basically, that the way you respond to stressors in your life becomes a habit and a pattern.  At some point in your past (usually childhood) you developed a specific set of strategies that you use over and over again in all areas of your life, be it at work, in relationships or with your health. At first, it can be hard to see that the patterns but the deeper you look, the more clearly you can see them.

Like every time you check your email, you get overwhelmed, so you quickly respond to the easy messages and then move on to the next thing, never really getting your email to a point where you feel good about it.

And in relationships, when something hard comes up like confrontation or hard truths, you tend to put off dealing with it again and again. Instead, you relate on a more superficial level, which doesn’t allow you to actually solve the problem. It just stays there, in the background, affecting your relationship and your sense of authenticity.

Can you see the similarity in these two examples? 

Why it matters to know your stress response type

If you want to change the stress levels in your life, you can’t just go on vacation or break up with your partner. That will only change the outside environment/ circumstances in your life.  It won’t change the way you respond to the stressors in your life – which is where the real power is.

If you want to truly reduce stress in your life, you have to become a master of your own stress response patterns.

When you can see that you’ve fallen into your usual stress pattern, you can stop blaming the things outside of you for it (and spending lots and lots of time trying to change them). Instead, you can acknowledge your own needs, take measures to calm the nervous system and reexamine the way you’re thinking about things that gives your power away.

This is how you change your stress levels.

Before we dig into the 4 stress response types, let’s take a super quick look at what stress is.

What stress is

Stress is a protective mechanism that creates a physiological experience in the body in response to a stressor that can be real or just in the mind.  

Symptoms may include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Increased heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Fuzzy thinking
  • Circular, obsessive thinking
  • Inability to relax, sleep well, digest well
  • Emotions like anger, overwhelm, sadness, depression, anxiety

Biologically, stress responses serve to ensure our survival. They are natural and needed. Some degree of stress is helpful for us to get things done or ensure successful relationships.

However, many of us live in a constant state of stress and can feel stuck in “on mode”. This affects the function of all of our biological, mental and emotional systems, reducing the quality of life and our sense of self.

The 4 stress response types

1. Fight

We’re all familiar with this response type. It’s the response of the mama grizzly protecting her cubs from the unwary mountain biker. Swift and ferocious. In modern humans, this highly reactive response looks like you standing up to the stressor (real or imagined), often in ways that create additional problems. Because you repeat this over and over, it can feel it’s just the way the world is – out to get you.

Signs that your stress response type is Fight. You:

  • Overstrive, overwork
  • Get caught up in perfectionism
  • Are highly critical of others and especially yourself
  • Tend towards anger
  • Get defensive easily 
  • Feel like other people are always criticizing you or against you
  • Mistrust the people in your life
  • Have a pattern of “burning things down” (jobs, relationships, hobbies)

Underneath this pattern are beliefs like:

  • I’m not enough
  • I’m not lovable
  • There’s no place in this ____ for me

Postive form

In it’s positive form, the Flight response creates energy for you to work with the problem at hand. When you can use this energy constructively, you’re able to transform your circumstances and grow as a person. 

2. Flight

As an innate protective mechanism, the Flight response gets you out of danger by either moving your body, your mind or your emotions. Like a little kitten that runs to hide under the sofa. Instead of confronting (as in Fight), you remove yourself from the situation, which typically leaves it unsolved. Like, Fight, Flight is also a highly reactive response.

Signs that your stress response type is Flight. You:

  • Are highly reactive
  • Have a hard time remembering difficult moments in your life
  • Experience disassociation of past traumatic experiences
  • Have a hard time feeling your feelings
  • Fear speaking up, talking about controversial topics or speaking publicly
  • Avoid confrontation at all costs
  • Have low self-confidence
    Describe yourself as having lots of self-doubt or that you play small

Underneath this pattern are beliefs like:

  • I don’t have anything to contribute
  • No one notices/cares about me
  • I’m not enough

Positive form

The productive form of Flight tells you when it’s time to take it easy and rest. It also helps you to remove yourself from danger.

3. Freeze

The deer in the headlights reaction typifies the Freeze response. Or better yet, a house cat that freezes when noticed, instinctively thinking that if it doesn’t move, the danger won’t be able to see it (little do they know)! Neither moving forward, nor moving backward seem safe, so you stay in one place.

Signs that your stress response is Freeze. You:

  • Get easily overwhelmed
  • Feel like your brain is often unfocused or fuzzy
  • Have a hard time making decisions (from what to eat for dinner to what to do with your life)
  • Move very slowly when it comes to doing new things
  • Get stuck in ruts in all areas of your life
  • Fear making changes, even if your current situation isn’t great

Underneath this pattern are beliefs like:

  • Change is too hard
  • I don’t know what to do
  • This is good enough
  • I should be grateful for what I have/ I’m ungrateful

Positive form

Instead of jumping into action like Fight or Flight, Freeze can create the space to contemplate your options and rationally choose your path forward.

4. Submit/bond

This stress response is all about giving in to the situation in order to appease. It can look like the young child being overly loving to her angry parent or an employee always agreeing with what the boss says, even when she has other ideas.

The submit response is all about you giving up your desires and sense of self. By being nice and agreeable, you don’t upset others or create additional stress.

Signs that your stress response is Submit. You:

  • People please
  • Care more about other people’s feelings than your own (ex. “I can’t say/do that because my partner won’t like it”)
  • Don’t have an opinion, let alone express it
  • Are often apathetic and wait for others to make decisions
  • Fear being yourself in relationships
  • Remove/isolate yourself because your way of relating to others feels inauthentic, disempowering or exhausting 

Underneath this pattern are beliefs like:

  • I don’t care as long as ____ is happy
  • I just want people to like me
  • I just want people to think I’m nice
  • The real me would scare people away
  • It’s easier to just be alone

Positive form

Compromise and being considerate of other people’s feelings are necessary in healthy relationships, when not done at the cost of your own power and self-worth.

Which stress type do you see yourself in most? While we can experience all 4 types, most of us have a primary one that kicks in automatically when we experience a stressful trigger.

The number one thing I want you to walk away with is knowledge that your stress response is not you. It’s not your personality nor the truth of who you are. Rather, it’s a self-protective that you learned to help you manage challenge in your life. It’s there for a reason and it’s was a good thing at one point in time.

The problem is that your stress response triggers automatically now and often results in behaviors and feelings that don’t actually serve you. Your job now is to lovingly understand yourself and take gentle steps to change how you respond to stress.

Put it into practice

Over the next week, every time you notice that you’re stressed, ask yourself “what type of stress response is this?”. Without judgement, list out the characteristics of that response as YOU experience them. 

For example, “I noticed that I’m in the Freeze response when I got that phone call because I didn’t answer it and don’t feel like calling back”.

I want you to get really good at identifying how your stress response looks – from a non-judgmental perspective.

Practicing seeing without judging. Simply accept that you respond that way.

This is a vital step towards changing your stress patterns.

If you’d like to take this work a step further, I have a hands-on mini-course called Healing Stress So You Can Move Forward that’s available here.