Building resilience to stress

Think back to a time you were  really stressed out. Did you ever look at yourself and think, “That’s just not me! Why am I doing this?” If this sounds familiar, then the bad news is that you might have been in a dark place called ‘the grip’. The good news? If you learn about your personality type, you can understand this ‘grip’ reaction, learn how to pull yourself out of it, and even stop yourself from going there in the first place.

The MBTI (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator) personality type looks at four aspects of your personality:

  • Are you energized by, and do you prefer to pay attention to, the outside world of people and things (Extraversion, E) or your inner world (Introversion, I)?
  • Do you trust and prefer to use practical information based on the evidence of your senses (Sensing, S) or do you pay more attention to connections and the big picture (Intuition, N)?
  • Do you prefer to make decisions based on objective logic (Thinking, T) or based on your values and on how people will be affected (Feeling, F)?
  • Do you prefer to live in an ordered, structured, planned way (Judging, J) or in an open, spontaneous, unplanned way (Perceiving, P)?

The four letters can be combined to give 16 different types, and you may hear people say things like “I’m an ESTJ” or “I’ve got preferences for INFP” or “I’m definitely a Perceiving type”. In each ‘preference pair’ you will be drawn to–i.e. ‘prefer’–one side or the other. For example, you might prefer Extraversion (E) rather than Introversion (I), and spend much more of your time and energy doing things typical of Extraverts, and little of your time or attention on activities and ways of doing things typical of Introverts. 

On the other hand, you might prefer I rather than E. Though you will still spend some time in and carry out some activities associated with the other side, you’ll have a preference for the Introversion (I) way of doing things. The same applies to S–N, T–F and J–P – in each case you’ll have a preference, but you will also visit the other side from time to time. 

The MBTI assessment provides  insight that helps with many aspects of your life, and one of the more immediately beneficial applications of personality type understanding comes in the form of being better equipped to handle stress. Knowing your MBTI personality type can help you to cope with stress and become more resilient in three main ways:

  • Identifying your stress buttons
  • Understanding your stress reaction
  • Developing ways to pull yourself out of the grip of stress

Identifying your stress buttons

It may at times feel like you’re wholly unique in the things that stress you out, but actually you’re not alone. Others with similar type preferences will be stressed by the same things you are, and so you can adopt some of their techniques. Here are some of the stress buttons for different type preferences:

Extraversion preferences are stressed by:
Spending too much time alone
Not enough external stimulation, not enough going on
Not being able to socialize or travel
Introversion preferences are stressed by:
Spending too much time with others
Too many external distractions, too much noise
No time to sit and think
Sensing preferences are stressed by:
Ambiguity, no clear direction
Ideas without any foundation or purpose
People ignoring past experience
Intuition preferences are stressed by:
Having to follow exact instructions
People who want all the details
People who ignore the big picture
Thinking preferences are stressed by:
Decisions that seem to be subjective, illogical and therefore unfair
Being forced to worry about people (and not the task or problem at hand)
Giving emotional support
Feeling preferences are stressed by:
Not having their values respected
Conflict and lack of harmony
Not having emotional support
Judging preferences are stressed by:
Disorganized people or organizations
Unnecessary last-minute rushes
Not being able to keep work and home separate
Perceiving preferences are stressed by:
Inflexible people or organizations
Making decisions or plans before they need to be made
Stress triggers by MBTI personality preference

Knowing your personality-based stress buttons can help you better cope with life’s challenges. My own MBTI preferences are for Introversion, Intuition, Thinking and Perceiving – INTP for short. Working from home (as I currently am, thanks to COVID-19) is in many ways not stressful for me at all. It’s generally peaceful and quiet, without lots of people about (Introversion), and I can do most things in my own way (Intuition, Perceiving). But it is a little stressful for me to have to worry about supporting friends, family and colleagues at this time (Thinking). 

It’s also stressful when I have too many online meetings (Introversion), and I miss the opportunities I used to have to be spontaneous and break my routine (Perceiving). But knowing my stress buttons means that I can work out ways to deal with them (for example, setting online meetings to last for 25 minutes so I can recharge my batteries in between).  

Understanding your stress reactions

Even if you know your stress buttons, you will still get stressed from time to time. So it’s important to understand how you react to stress, and this also will depend on your personality. When we begin to feel stressed, we tend to fall back on the aspect of our personality that we are most comfortable using. 

Each of us has a core to our personality, a favorite aspect, and this may become ‘exaggerated’ as we respond to stress. For me, with my MBTI type of INTP, this is something called ‘Introverted Thinking’. Given the chance, there is nothing I like more than spending time by myself, solving problems inside my head using logical thinking (and if that doesn’t sound like fun to you, it’s likely that you have a different MBTI type). So when I begin to feel stressed, my natural tendency is to fall back on Introverted Thinking. To the outside world, I seem to be getting quieter and quieter, but inside my head, cogs are turning, I’m working away to relieve my stress by thinking through logical solutions. In  reality, however, there might not be any logical solution, and this process may be taking me  further and further away from the outside world and anyone who might help me. 

In this first stage of stress, Introverts generally get quieter and more withdrawn, while Extraverts frequently grow louder and more active.

Often, that’s as far as things go. But sometimes, if the stress is severe or goes on long enough, we put so much energy into the favorite part of our personality that we exhaust it, and then we suddenly start to behave in ways that are the exact opposite of our usual style, which in personality psychology is referred to as an ‘inferior function’. This is called being ‘in the grip’ – shorthand for ‘in the grip of the inferior function’, the aspect of our personality we are least comfortable with. 

For instance, if we normally prefer Introverted Thinking, we may flip to functioning under Extraverted Feeling. And because we don’t use this part of our personality very often, and are in a stressful place, it may erupt in a very negative way. Here are the typical initial stress reactions and in the grip behaviors for each of the 16 MBTI types:

TypeInitial stress reaction‘In the grip’ reaction
ISTJ, ISFJWithdraws from the outside world. Obsessively searches for information and can’t make a decision till this is foundImagines and talks about all sorts of negative possibilities, may become impulsive and irresponsible
INTJ, INFJWithdraws, building complex, unrealistic ideas in their head. Can’t act until every possibility has been exploredMay over-indulge in food, or binge-watch, or suddenly start tidying or organizing, or start picking fights
INTP, ISTPWithdraws to fixate on working out the one logical solution by themselves, ignoring other people or informationMay have emotional outbursts (shouting or crying) or imagine that others dislike them or are rejecting them
ISFP, INFPWithdraws to obsessively work through solutions that fit with their values, then ignores facts that don’t fit with theseBecomes critical of others, or aggressive, decides that other people–or they themselves–are incompetent. Imagines mistakes 
ESTP, ESFPSeeks more and more excitement, takes risks, lives in the present moment and won’t make decisionsFeels ‘locked inside’ and overwhelmed by imagining negative possibilities. May focus on the future, seeing all outcomes as bad
Shares increasingly impractical ideas with more and more people, becomes destructively ‘playful’, indecisiveCan feel marginalized and alone. May obsess about specifics or have exaggerated concerns about physical symptoms
ESTJ, ENTJBecomes forceful, even aggressive, makes snap decisions and imposes them, dismisses opinions that don’t match theirsMay feel unloved and unlovable, feeling ‘locked inside’. Can be oversensitive and may have emotional outbursts
ESFJ, ENFJBecomes over-friendly and effusive, demands that all their own and other people’s needs are metMay make sweeping, critical judgements of others and themselves, using rigid and convoluted logic without any firm basis
Initial stress reactions and ‘grip’ stress reactions

Developing ways to pull yourself out of the grip of stress

If we do slip into the grip, the key is to use another part of our personality to pull ourselves out. Here are some approaches that tend to work for each type:

ISTJ, ISFJIdentify someone who will listen and take your concerns seriously and talk to them
INTJ, INFJSpend some time alone to recharge, engaging in a task or hobby
ISTP, INTPTalk with a good listener. Revisit the facts and look for new perspectives
ISFP, INFPIdentify a few realistic goals. Accept that you can say ‘no’ and  compromise
ESTP, ESFPDefuse and resolve negative possibilities by asking others to help you make plans
ENTP, ENFPAllow yourself to say ‘no’ and set boundaries
ESTJ, ENTJTalk to a trusted friend to help you to reframe tasks and look at what is achievable
ESFJ, ENFJCreate time to reflect. Force yourself to consider the facts and the alternatives
Tips to pull yourself out of stress reactions

We live in stressful times. If you can identify your stress buttons, understand your stress reaction, and develop ways to pull yourself out of the grip, you will find that this builds your resilience to cope with the rocks life throws in your path.