The Two Major Ways People Respond to Stress (and How to Deal With Yours)

The Two Major Ways People Respond to Stress (and How to Deal With Yours)

During stressful times, people tend to react in one of two ways: Either by over-functioning, and kicking into high gear to solve all of the problems; or by under-functioning, and freezing up to the point they can’t handle what is going on. Neither of these responses is ideal, as an over-functioner is prone to burnout, while an under-functioner will often struggle to handle even minor obstacles.

And when an under-functioner and over-functioner are both reacting to the same stressful situation, it can cause a lot of tension in a relationship. If one person is handling all of the details while the other person is frozen, it threatens to create a dynamic in which one person grows resentful at doing all the work, while the other person feels shut out of the process.

Both over-functioning and under-functioning in response to stress can cause problems

As Amanda White, the founder and clinical director for the Philadelphia-based Therapy For Women Centre, recently told Shape:

“Over-functioners are more likely to be parents, caretakers, or bosses because the buck stops with them in terms of accountability. They are also more likely to be perfectionists and struggle to ask for help or set boundaries. If you think about it in the context of a group project, over-functioners are the individuals who lead the group and often end up doing most of the project themselves because they don’t trust others. Under-functioners enable this behaviour because they are happy to sit back and let someone else do most of the work.”

As White also points out, although an under-functioner’s instinct is to avoid doing things to ameliorate a stressful situation, the more they do just that, the more anxious they become. If an over-functioner is handling all of the work for them, the resulting dynamic can be equally unhealthy for the over-functioner as well as the under-functioner.

How to manage your stress response

If you find yourself falling into one of these patterns in response to stress, you can benefit from employing the following five strategies.

Take note of your triggers

The first step to managing your stress is identifying your triggers. Triggers can be either internal or external. Some external triggers include major life changes, factors in your environment, unpredictable events, workplace issues, social issues, and traumatic events. Internal triggers can be your fears, feelings of uncertainty and indecision, and a lack of control over your situation, as well as managing your own expectations.


Breathing exercises can help your body feel relaxed, even when you are anything but. They also don’t take very much time out of your day, which means they can be a quick technique to help you ease your tension during a particularly stressful time.

There are a number of different breathing exercises you can try. The most basic exercise is belly breathing, where you either sit down or lie flat, breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth, letting your belly move in and out while your chest remains still.

Do a self-compassion check

Self-compassion is the practice of having empathy for yourself, which can be especially critical when you are stressed. Although you can’t always control your stressors, you can learn to acknowledge what is happening, recognise your emotional response to it, and to find a way to cope in a way that gives you what you need — without resorting to self-recrimination or blame. When life gets stressful, piling on self-recrimination or self-blame will just make things even more stressful.

Reset your expectations

Sometimes reducing stress can be as simple as adjusting your expectations. If you are getting too stressed out about every little detail, reevaluate what you are doing to determine what is absolutely essential, and what can be modified or eliminated. Deadlines can get shifted, projects can get modified, and less-critical priorities can often be eliminated or delegated.

Connect with others

We all crave connection. That’s what makes us human. When you are stressed, being around the right people can be a way to ground yourself, as well as to recalibrate your stressors. For under-functioners, companionship can help them build resilience and help them function even in the face of their stress. For over-functioners, being around people can help ground them, offering a bit of calm even when their instincts are to go all-out.

Whatever your response to stress is, the important thing is finding a balance between doing either too much or too little — because either will only make the situation worse.

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