Back 5 Reasons Why Some People Get More Stressed Than Others by

Stress is arguably health enemy number one. As well as increasing chances of developing physical health problems such as heart disease and high blood pressure, chronic stress also increases our chances of developing mental health and mood disorders. 

Mindfulness is one of the best ways to combat stress. When we are stressed, our breathing becomes shallow and tends to be focused in the chest; this breathing pattern perpetuates our stress, and one way mindfulness helps is to focus our breathing into the belly. This breathing calms us down by activating the parasympathetic nervous system. Finding calm reduces the levels of stress hormone cortisol in our bodies. 

Although stress is part of all our lives, it’s also true that people respond to stress differently, and even feel stress to differing degrees. Here we explore why this is and how mindfulness can help.

1) Personality

Personality is often spoken about in terms of the Big Five: agreeableness, conscientiousness, extraversion, neuroticism, and openness to experience. We all exhibit different levels of each of these five factors and that largely manifests as our personality. When it comes to stress, the key factor is neuroticism, and it's opposite: emotional stability. 

How mindfulness can help

Mindfulness can help us build emotional stability and resilience by giving us pause. Taking the time away from a stressful situation to meditate or practising mindfulness while carrying out a daily task (while walking to the shops, or cooking dinner), can stop us in our tracks before we become overwhelmed with thoughts and feelings related to the stressful situation or event. This healthy level of distraction and detachment will help you make the best decisions moving forward.

2) How much we value reaching our goals

It's entirely normal to feel stress generated by a work project that you care about, or passing exams, or fighting for your relationship to survive; it's also entirely normal to want to achieve your goals. However, if our self-worth is contingent on reaching every goal we set ourselves, then we will experience high levels of stress when we are challenged, because to fail is to mean that we aren't good enough. 

How mindfulness can help

In a busy goal-oriented society, taking the time out to practice mindfulness can be a revolutionary act of self-care. Deliberately slowing down your day in order to meet your needs is an act that can help you build self-compassion and self-worth. As mindfulness reduces stress, it will also help you achieve the goals you so keenly want to, and help you learn that even if you stumble, it doesn’t mean you aren’t worthy.  

3) Circumstances

Circumstances related to our financial stability, whether people are dependent on us, our health: some people's lives are more likely to be stressful. Key to this is the element of choice. Consider someone who chooses to live a simplistic lifestyle with few possessions vs. someone who has that lifestyle as a result of lacking in means and opportunity. 

How mindfulness can help

Practicing mindfulness can help us cultivate gratitude for the things that we have. This stops us from thinking back regretfully, and gives us pause when we are consumed by what we think we need to get / achieve / do in order to be happy. By focusing on and nurturing how you are in this moment, you will find that more options come available to you. You can only start from where you are. 

4) Childhood 

'Learned helplessness' is the term used to describe when a child has learnt that they do not have much control over their environment. Experiencing high levels of external stressors in childhood, such as growing up with neglectful parents, growing up in poverty, moving house a lot, or experiencing a bereavement early in life: all of these are examples of situations that may teach a child that they do not have much control over what happens to them.

How mindfulness can help
Not feeling like you have a choice when faced with stress might prompt us to respond in apathy, by shutting down, or even falling asleep. We learnt these responses early in life. Being mindful of our feelings as and when they come up can help us interrupt what’s going on in our minds and bodies before we reach the point of shutting down. Mindfulness will help you treat each situation with fresh eyes and a fresh mind, giving you the choice to respond differently than you have done in the past. 

5) Our brain

Stress makes the areas of our brain related to decision-making and emotional regulation fire up, as we try to work out what to do. Research has shown that people who exhibit more activity in this area of the brain when faced with stressful stimuli report less feelings of stress. More activity in this part of the brain indicates more flexibility - or neuroplasticity - and therefore better emotion and behaviour regulation. Less activity in this area means attention is narrowed and we struggle to stop thinking about the thing causing us so much stress. 

How mindfulness can help

Meditation has been shown to increase neuroplasticity, specifically in the prefrontal cortex, the area that is so important in decision-making and emotion regulation. Increasing neuroplasticity in this area makes it more likely that we will be able to evaluate the range of options available to us when faced with a stressful problem.

A lot of what is spoken about above comes down to how we interpret our situation. This is, in essence, what determines who struggles with stress more deeply. Stress occurs in response to external or internal stimuli; this stimulus can either be interpreted as a threat (leading to stress), or an opportunity. When we encounter a stressful situation, we typically make two appraisals: what is needed to cope with this situation? And, do I have the resources to cope with this situation? 

A person who answers yes to the second question holds the key to handling stress: knowing that you have the resources to cope with what life throws at you. It's important to remember of course that even the most resilient person might not always have the resources. 

A regular mindfulness practice helps with all manner of things that in turn help protect our resources: improving sleep, improving the quality of our relationships, helping our digestion and physical health through reduced cortisol levels. Try just ten minutes a day and see whether you feel better equipped to manage stress.  

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