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Stress. Is our ability to cope inherited or learned?

As you’ve probably guessed, our ability to handle stress depends on both genes and learning–not on just the one or the other. Fortunately, the genetic contribution is easy to understand, and the learned bit can be changed, so in truth, you have lots of control over how well you can handle stress.

Let’s start with genetics. Most personality traits–the qualities that guide our behaviour–are primarily learned. However, there are two dimensions of personality that are so heavily determined by our genetic makeup, and have so little to do with what we learn, that it’s better simply to accept them and work with them rather than to try to change them. These two dimensions are introversion-extroversion and impulsivity-reflectivity.

If you’re an introvert, you’ll be extremely sensitive to environmental ‘noise’. For you, big crowds, loud parties, lots of commotion, and impositions such as tight deadlines will feel incredibly stressful. Therefore, if you’re an introvert, it’s perfectly OK–in fact, a good idea–to turn down invitations to loud, crowded events, spend time more calmly on your own or with just one or two good friends. It’s also a good idea whenever you’re set a deadline, to create your own deadline in advance of that one so you feel more in control again.

If you’re an extrovert, on the other hand, you will be happier seeking out the crowds, the big parties, and the open plan offices that your introvert friends are working to avoid. You can also welcome imposed deadlines, knowing that you need them to kick start you into action.

The other genetically loaded dimension is impulsivity-reflectivity. If you’re the impulsive sort, you’ll often find yourself regretting that you reacted too quickly, that all too frequently, you started doing before you took the time to think things through. You may make more mistakes than your reflective counterpart, but you’ll also enjoy more opportunities because you jump in fast and find yourself first in the queue. Jobs and hobbies that require lots of energy and quick thinking are the best choices for you.

If on the other hand you’re reflective, then whenever you’re given an opportunity, you’ll want time to consider all options before you make a decision. You–unlike the impulsive individual–will miss some opportunities because you spend too long deciding whether to go for it. However, whenever you do make a decision it’s likely to be the right one. For you, jobs and hobbies that require careful thought and consideration, ones where speed is less important than accuracy, will suit you best.

Once you understand your personality a bit better, and you start making sure that whenever possible, you put yourself in situations where you can use your introversion or extroversion and your impulsiveness or ability to reflect to best advantage, you will begin to feel less stressed.

However, if after making all those changes to your lifestyle, you still feel frequently stressed, then you can be pretty sure that you have some bad habits that need changing. Habits are learned behaviours, and anything you’ve learned you can relearn. You simply need to replace them with better habits.

The first step is to find some good role models. Who do you know who seems to handle the situations you find stressful coolly and calmly? How exactly do they do that? Observe them, and also ask them how they manage so well. Then in small steps–that is, changing something you feel you can really change within one week–start adapting the way you behave so that it becomes more like the behaviour of your chosen role models.

Keep taking these small but positive steps, until you feel your stress levels have become easily manageable, almost all the time.