Stress Management, Well-being and Self-Care

Are You Stress Sensitive?

by James Porter February 08, 2012

Do you ever wonder if stress affects you more than the average person? Are you easily annoyed or frustrated by minor inconveniences?

You may be stress sensitive and you don't even know it.

If you're stress sensitive, little things get under your skin. Stuff bugs you that doesn't bug other people. Perhaps it's noise, or waiting in lines, maybe it's traffic jams or constructive criticism. It sticks with you, you resent it more or you hold a grudge. You assume that everyone is bothered by the same things you are but they just aren't.

Stress sensitivity can manifest itself in other ways too. Maybe you've noticed the mild sense of anxiety you feel about going to the doctor, or driving on the freeway, or getting on a plane or going to the top of a tall building. Or maybe you have noticed the inordinate amount of time you spend worrying about your kids, your finances or your job security.

Woman with Stress SensitivityIt starts when you're a child. After all, stress sensitivity (and anxiety) runs in families.* Maybe you were afraid to try new foods. Or maybe you were afraid to ride the Ferris wheel at the school fair. Or maybe you were afraid of going to the top of the George Washington Monument (on the field trip you took in 8th grade).

Later as you moved into adulthood you got so used to this low level of anxiety, you barely even knew it was there. But it pops to the surface every time you have to make a rent or mortgage payment and you're not sure where the money is coming from.

Your low-level anxiety presents itself in other ways, too: Maybe as occasional sleeplessness, nightmares, or short bouts of depression or anger episodes or just not having any patience with small children. As you move further into adulthood, maybe you begin experiencing elevated blood pressure, mood disorders, anxiety attacks and possibly even panic attacks.

Stress sensitivity runs deep in the psyches of many trauma survivors, who often suffer from PTSD. People with PTSD are extremely stress sensitive. That's why they have PTSD. Their nervous system has been dramatically changed by a traumatic event or a series of traumatic events. People with PTSD don't like tight spaces, crowds, loud noises, suffer from nightmares, flashbacks and often feel the need to self-medicate their anxiety with alcohol and recreational drugs.

PTSD or no, people who are stress sensitive have a larger amygdala (the part of the brain responsible for fear, anger, vigilance and stress) and a smaller hippocampus and prefrontal cortex (the areas of the brain that keep stress under control). Chronic stress causes the neurons in the amygdala to grow and strengthen while it causes the neurons in the hippocampus to atrophy and die. A bigger amygdala makes us more sensitive to stress and a smaller hippocampus makes it more difficult to manage our stress. This sets up a vicious cycle where stress increases our sensitivity which of course leads to even more stress which leads to increased sensitivity and so on and so forth.

Ironically, if you're stress sensitive, you probably think that stress management doesn't work. And to some extent you're right. It certainly hasn't worked for you so far. For stress sensitive people, it's harder to meditate, harder to concentrate, harder to find relief from stress and it's much easier to lose your temper.

The following diagram shows exactly how (increased or diminished) stress sensitivity works to increase or diminish our stress. In this diagram, sources of stress are called stressors. Let's say your stressors include traffic jams, an angry boss, an argument with your spouse, children who talk back, a person who cuts ahead of you in line and your local store being out of the ONE thing you came into buy. All of these six sources of stress are represented by the six arrows under the word STRESSORS.

The first two bars in the diagram can either magnify or diminish your "experience of stress." On this point we need to be perfectly clear. Everyone has stressors like the six described above. However NOT EVERYONE experiences this stress the same way. If you're stress sensitive, chances are, you're going to be MORE bothered by these stressors than someone who isn't.

And if you're stress sensitive, as the diagram below clearly shows, your stress is going to be magnified by your sensitivity. That's the two arrows going out at an angle. But if you're stress hardy - the opposite of stress sensitive - the effect of the stress is diminished and fewer arrows make it through to the target.

How Stress Sensitivity Works

The other bars in the diagram represent other methods for reducing stress including sense of control, cognitive defenses and physical coping. Like stress sensitivity, a sense of control can cut both ways. When you feel like YOU are in control of your own life, you'll experience LESS stress. When you feel like you're NOT in control of your life you'll experience MORE stress. The bar for cognitive defenses refers to how you're thinking affects your experience of stress. Thinking clearly while you are under stress lowers your stress and there are lots of simple methods you can learn for how to do this. And it all begins with recognizing and consciously changing your overly-negative thinking. (AKA negative self-talk.) And finally, physical coping skills like exercise, yoga and deep breathing help you fend off even more arrows.

Without these other lines of defense, stress-sensitivity can lead to all kinds of stress-related health problems. Maybe you're already plagued by back pain, neck pain, shoulder pain or some other mysterious form of pain that you (or even your doctor) can't explain. Maybe you notice a gnawing feeling in your gut, or a dependency on antacids, on sleeping pills or on aspirin. Maybe your blood pressure is climbing, maybe your waistline is growing or maybe you find it difficult to sleep at night.

But as a stress sensitive person you still have choices: You can work on adaptation skills that offer you protection against stress, like sense of control, cognitive defenses and improving your physical coping skills. My recommendation for stress sensitive people is to take up meditation. Meditation may actually help you rewire your nervous system. One study of mindfulness meditators (at the University of Wisconsin) showed that people who meditated for 30 minutes every day for 8 weeks were actually able to increase the size of their left prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for happiness and contentment.

If meditation isn't your thing, try yoga or exercise, taking a relaxing bath, or even getting a massage. Any method that feels like you are washing yourself clean of your stress, practiced at least 3 times a week, will help you manage your stress-sensitivity and keep it under control.

*Anxiety runs in families: In studies of rats called "cross-fostering" studies, when a genetically anxious new-born rat is taken away from his biological mother and raised by a non-anxious foster mother, that adopted rat is going to be less anxious than his natural siblings raised by the original anxious mother. So that's the case for anxiety being determined by how you are raised. However, that adopted rat is STILL going to be more anxious than the other biological offspring of the non-anxious mother. So even though anxiety can be reduced by good mothering (which in a rats case is lots of licking and grooming), it's still partly the result of your genetic inheritance. So if you're born anxious, no amount of non-anxious mothering is going to completely override the genetic propensity for anxiety. But it will help.

James Porter
James Porter