There Are 5 'Stress Languages.' Here's How To Figure Out Yours.

Understanding your stress language, and those of your loved ones, can help you both feel and communicate better.
Understanding your stress language, and those of your loved ones, can help you both feel and communicate better. The Good Brigade via Getty Images

Have you ever been in an argument with someone and felt like the two of you were speaking different languages? Turns out that might not be too far off: Those difficulties in communicating could be due to differing stress languages, essentially a way of thinking about how you respond to challenging situations.

“When we are stressed, our blood goes to our body and leaves our frontal lobe area. So our frontal lobe kind of goes offline,” said Chantal Donnelly, a physical therapist, stress researcher and author of “Settled: How to Find Calm in a Stress-Inducing World.”

The frontal lobe is responsible for functions like self-control, emotions and thinking, according to the Cleveland Clinic“We also have these cranial nerves that start in the brainstem,” Donnelly said. “They’re associated with communication and connection, and those get compromised when we’re in a stress response.”

“So, when you’re in an argument, you are not speaking the same language ― you actually are having trouble communicating and hearing each other properly,” she explained.

This explains why you might have felt you just couldn’t get through to your partner, child or friend during a conflict: You really weren’t understanding each other in the moment.

Donnelly came up with the concept of stress languages while working with her own clients. She found that stress management was the key missing element in their treatment. “Stress language” is not an official mental health term, but the concept can help you learn about yourself and your loved ones, much like the love languages that have become widely known in recent years.

Below, experts share more on stress languages, how to determine yours, and why it’s important to manage your stress.

The 5 Different Stress Languages

There are five categories of stress languages, according to Donnelly’s research, and many of us fall into one (or maybe a few) of them. They are:

  • The Imploder: This is a “freeze” response to a stressful situation. The imploder may feel hopeless, helpless and paralyzed, Donnelly explained.

  • The Exploder: This is a “fight or flight” response to a stressful situation. This person may have an inflated reaction to a stressful situation; they might get irritable, frustrated or angry, or even leave a situation that they can’t handle, Donnelly said.

  • The Fixer: This “tend and befriend” reaction is typically how women express a stress response. This can look like appeasement, people pleasing, overstepping boundaries and even “mothering” people who aren’t your kids, according to Donnelly.

  • The Number: As in, a person who numbs themself to the outside world when things aren’t going well, Donnelly said. This person usually uses escapism ― such as drugs, alcohol, online gaming, overworking or overexercising ― as a coping mechanism for stress.

  • The Denier: This is someone who possesses toxic positivity in response to stress and can be overly optimistic to avoid reality, Donnelly explained.

“The first three ― the exploder, the imploder and the fixer ― are based on biologically where people go when they become stressed,” Donnelly said. “And then the last two, the denier and the number, those are based on strategies that people try to use on a regular basis to overcome or manage stress.”

Which one are you? To figure that out, Donnelly said you should look for stress response patterns in yourself and in others when you’re having a rough day.

“I suggest that people ask their partners if they see a pattern, and realize that you may not agree, but to step back and be really curious about what your partner sees in you,” Donnelly said. “It’s really about catching yourself and your partner in these repetitive approaches to stress.”

Keep in mind that you may fall into multiple categories of stress language. Or certain people may bring out different stress responses in you: You might respond differently to your parents, for example, than you would to your partner or your boss.

The Importance Of Knowing Your Stress Language

Just like knowing your own love language and that of your partner, it’s beneficial to understand how you and those around you handle stress. This way, you’ll be able to anticipate how your friend, boss or partner may react in an argument, which can help lead to a calmer interaction and make it easier to anticipate what they need in the moment.

“Understanding stress languages brings more understanding in your relationships,” Donnelly said.

“I think [stress languages are] useful in the sense that they’re fun and you can learn about a lot about yourself,” said Christopher Hansen, a licensed professional counselor with Thriveworks in San Antonio. While “stress language” isn’t an official clinical term, the idea does have its place in mental health, he said.

Hansen likened understanding your stress language to being sick and not knowing what’s wrong. Once you get a diagnosis, there’s some sense of relief, because you can finally put a name to what’s happening.

Donnelly said that identifying your stress language, or someone else’s, is not about pointing fingers, but simply a way to have better communication.

“Those terms can sound like labels, and my purpose is not to give people labels,” Donnelly said. “It’s really just to create a framework or a vernacular so that there is a way of understanding others in your life.”

To figure out your stress language, think about your stress response patterns and talk to your loved ones about what they see in you.
To figure out your stress language, think about your stress response patterns and talk to your loved ones about what they see in you. Eleganza via Getty Images

Plus, it can be a good way to change problematic behaviors. It’s impossible to change a behavior if you don’t realize you’re doing it. Understanding how you respond to stress can be the first step in grasping how you act in an argument or other tough situations.

For example, if your stress language is that of an “exploder,” and you have outbursts during stressful moments, identifying your pattern of aggression makes it possible to stop yourself next time, Hansen noted. Or if you’re a “fixer” and you tend to overstep boundaries in stressful situations, you can acknowledge that and catch yourself before you do it again.

Other Ways To Handle Stress

Stress can wreak havoc on your mental health and physical health alike. It can cause physical symptoms like headache, chest pain, trouble sleeping and fatigue, in addition to emotional states like sadness, anger, overwhelm and more, according to the Mayo Clinic.

“Cumulative stress is probably the most causal to the development of anxiety and depressive disorders,” Hansen said. Plus, chronic stress can lead to major issues like heart disease and high blood pressure. 

These risks make it clear why you should manage your stress as much as possible, whether through understanding your stress language or adopting lifestyle changes, like keeping a healthy routine, to help you keep your cool.

“Routine is the secret to good stress hormones,” Elizabeth Shirtcliff, a research professor at the Center for Translational Neuroscience at the University of Oregon, previously told HuffPost. To help manage your stress, you can try eating at the same times every day and having a bedtime routine, an exercise regimen and regular hobbies that you lean on.

“Those are all going to be ways that help your body predict the day and therefore not have to overdo it,” Shirtcliff told HuffPost.

Beyond having a good baseline for stress management, in a stressful moment you can try a body-up response instead of a brain-down response, Donnelly suggested. This means focusing on your physical body instead of your mind. For example, try breathing exercises, rather than positive thinking, to get your body into a calm state.

“If you inhale for a count of three and exhale for a count of six, that’s going to settle your nervous system just a little bit,” Donnelly said.

What To Do If You’re Still Stressed Out

Stress can become unbearable past a certain point, and no matter how familiar you are with your stress language, you may need additional support to cope ― especially since chronic stress, which can lead to heart health issues, isn’t an easy thing to just turn off.

“The litmus test for whether something’s a problem or not is if it’s affecting your relationships, your ability to work, your ability to have fun, to enjoy life,” Hansen said. “If you’re withdrawing, those are all hardcore symptoms of either a depressive or an anxiety disorder.”

If this sounds familiar, it’s a good idea to seek out professional help, if possible. You can use databases like Psychology Today and Inclusive Therapists to find a mental health provider near you.

“The biggest thing I always say [is]... it’s a sign of strength to admit that you need help and get the right help,” Hansen said.