We Respond Differently to Stress

enneagram self coaching Mar 15, 2020

Friendly reminders during the COVID-19 outbreak


Getting perspective in the midst of a crisis is hard for anyone. Doing it in the middle of a global pandemic amid 24-hour news cycles and forced closures of schools and work is especially difficult.

How we respond to stress has a lot to do with learned patterns of behaviors that become unconscious responses over time. Our brain is so efficient that it has automated certain behaviors that have helped us survive. But these responses may not always be beneficial.

The COVID-19 outbreak gives us an opportunity to check-in with ourselves and attune to what we really need at this moment, to build our physical capacity to be resilient in times of stress, and to get more familiar with our authentic selves and inherent strengths.


Polyvagal theory describes the ways that our stress-response system works on a biological level. It teaches that we have evolved to default first to fight or flight mode, and then if that doesn’t work, move into freeze mode, elicited by our more primitive brain. Neural pathways regulate our autonomic state and the expression of emotional and social behavior. So understanding how stress works in your body can be an important part of managing its expression in your life. In other words, being able to tune into your signs of stress - like an increased heart rate, disturbed sleep, shallow breathing, upset digestion - can help signal a need for you to deal with the stressors before you move into a more reactive and less healthy way of being.

The Enneagram provides a unique illustration of how this looks for different people. Each of the Enneagram personality types responds to stress differently - different things stress us out, and the way we cope with those stressors is unique.

I thought it might be helpful to outline the 9 responses to stress so that you can become more aware of your own patterns, and potentially interrupt your automatic responses with specific suggestions for growth.



8s respond to stress by being strong and grounded - this is their superpower. They can be protective of the weak or vulnerable and are often looking out for others. They move into action without a sense of panic that others might experience.

But that intensity can sometimes be more than is needed. So it is helpful for 8s in times of stress to evaluate how they impact others. 8s can help moderate their impulsivity by waiting and listening before they take action. The intensity 8s bring could be an unconscious attempt to mask their feelings of vulnerability. So, stress can be an invitation to practice tenderness and vulnerability with the people they trust. 8s can look for the opportunity to welcome a sense of calm or quiet within them, without having to move directly into action.

But since 8s have such big energy, finding a place to put that energy can also provide relief. 8s can practice giving themselves permission to be messy and letting go of control. Being creative without the pressure to do it well can be freeing, so trying a new craft or handiwork will give 8s a place to direct their energy. Getting outside for an adventure or challenge can also let off steam - so taking a hike, riding a kayak, playing tennis, etc. can provide relief during stressful times.



9s tend to respond to stress by withdrawing into their inner world. They can get overwhelmed with having to make decisions quickly or being forced to set priorities. Their ability to stay neutral and see both sides of a situation (their superpower), can create a certain resistance to reality or how they really feel. When stressed, 9s can get stubborn or passive-aggressive and occasionally end up boiling over and exploding.

The energy required to resist reality or block out emotions can be immense. Sometimes it causes 9s to shut down and escape into substitute pleasures. So, the most important thing they can do in times of crisis is to pay attention to their own needs and well-being. Their anger or resistance can be a sign that they are discounting something that is important to them. They need to remember that they matter!

Building a capacity to accept that discomfort is part of life and things change can be difficult, but developing this skill will go a long way in reducing stress in the long run. 9s can practice interrupting their automatic pattern by choosing to take action on something that is important to them and meets an inner need they have. Another thing 9s can do to alleviate stress is to practice loving-kindness toward themselves. Spending time alone rediscovering a passion can reduce the time spent thinking about others and allow 9s to stop caretaking and reawaken to their internal desires.



1s tend to respond to stress by becoming hyper responsible and over-correcting. Their strong inner critic feeds their anxiety and can lead to resentfulness, being argumentative, blaming others, or outbursts of frustration. They carry tension in their bodies and can become burdened by their strong sense of personal responsibility.

In times of stress, it can help 1s to remember that there is more than one right way to do things. Watching the pattern of constantly monitoring for good and bad may allow 1s to accept imperfections in themselves and others. Practicing forgiveness will make it easier to let go of the automatic judgments that are a result of the rigid rules and internal strictness that is inherent in this personality type.

Creating and embracing free time to relax and do things that are enjoyable can reduce stress. They can check-in with themselves to see what wants or needs they might be suppressing. Or they can find something creative to do that is fun. This allows 1s to disengage from the critical and fearful mind and allow them to be more present.



2s tend to respond to stress by over-investing in others or tending to their relationships. Unconsciously, their generosity comes from a “give to get” mentality. This can leave them feeling unappreciated or uncared for and causes them to get more demanding or to resort to blame. Being confused about their own needs can cause intense outbursts of emotion. 

While they can get stressed by feeling needed by so many people, attuning to the people they love is their superpower. It is important that in times of stress, 2s give and receive without expectations and set boundaries on their giving so it doesn’t leave them depleted. One way to check-in is to ask, “Am I being helpful here? Or is this bordering on intrusive or controlling?” Without realizing it, 2s can cross over into a nurturing mode that is anticipatory and bossy without actually providing help.

Having a good cry, getting clear on their own needs and wants, and seeing their anger as a distress signal that they have unmet needs can be really helpful when 2s get stressed. Doing something indulgent for themselves gives them a break from showing up for others. Setting good boundaries and taking care of themselves are skills that will enhance their ability to help others without getting depleted after the crisis resolves.



3s tend to respond to stress by getting impatient or irritable. Having more free time during a crisis doesn’t automatically mean that you will be able to get more work done and that doesn’t feel good to a 3. They want to keep things moving, removing obstacles that are getting in the way of achieving their goals. They hate inefficiency or indecisiveness. And their stress can get amplified if things slow down because they unconsciously base how they feel on how much they get done or from the acknowledgment from others.

In times of crisis or stress, it can help 3s to practice patience and allow things to be the way they are. Since they tend to have a hard time knowing their real feelings and core values, this can be an opportunity to welcome their emotions and get clear on their identity, independent of their successes or the expectations of others. So, picking up a journal to do a soul-check to attune to their feelings is a good idea in crisis.

Ultimately, if 3s can realize that love comes from being, not from doing or having, then they will be even more resilient and powerful on the other side of a crisis. Allowing themselves to chill, drop the to-do list, and be with the people they love will help reduce the physical stress response in a crisis. Switching into a listening and receptive mode can be a simple and powerful way for 3s to develop more empathy and understanding for others, which will ultimately serve them well in enhancing their productivity after the crisis has resolved.



4s tend to respond to stress with emotional intensity. They can have fiery outbursts, sink onto emotions, or dissolve into tears. It is easy for them to get depressed about what is going on because they feel things so intensely.

Their stress is compounded when people or experiences don’t live up to their ideal or their desire for intensity. They can lament the fact that they don’t have what others do. And being rejected or abandoned can be especially triggering because they want to be treated as special or unique.

In times of stress, 4s can focus on what is going well in their life right now. A gratitude practice can help to retrain the brain to not dwell on the negative situation as much because our brains are constantly scanning our environment for information that confirms your beliefs. It can be hard to appreciate ordinary, everyday experiences, but this practice will serve 4s well over their lifetime. Disentangling self-esteem from being perceived as special and living an extraordinary life can help increase their happiness set point and prevent the emotional wave from dipping as low.

It can be easy for 4s to slip into inaction and let their feelings run the show or to get discouraged because they aren’t making progress fast enough. They should stay the course, regardless of their emotional wave and intense feelings, because they will make progress in the direction they want to go. Wait for the emotional wave to calm down before reacting to others. It can also help to turn to ways to make others happy in order to get out of the self-absorption that can come with intense feelings. Alternately, getting outside in nature alone can help reset the nervous system and change things energetically. Journaling feelings can also help 4s get perspective in times of stress. Bottom line - during stressful times, 4s need to balance their time spent contemplating their interior world with getting outside themselves and taking action.



When 5s feel a lot of stress, they can withdraw into their mental world. They easily fall into isolating themselves and being excessively analytical. They tend to respond to stress by trying to learn everything there is to know before taking action. Their stress can intensify if they get overwhelmed by too much emotion, if they fail to maintain healthy boundaries, or if they overextend themselves and become tired. They experience tension and can be disapproving, with a short burst of temper.

In times of stress, 5s need to take private time to restore their energy and attend to their physical and emotional needs. Taking an opportunity to refuel without using your energy by talking or interacting with others is ideal. 5s can experience growth when they allow themselves to experience feelings instead of detaching from them and retreating into their minds. But finding a new project that isn’t related to work can provide intellectual stimulation without adding to the stress.

It can also help 5s to find ways to engage with others or take action, embracing the idea that they have all the energy and support they need. Expressing themselves and engaging with others will help limit the intrusions that inevitably come when they withdraw or retreat from the people they love. Practicing an abundance mindset will allow them to step out of their compulsive need to know and habit of isolation.



6s are easily triggered by times of uncertainty or insecurity. They default into worst-case-scenario thinking and being controlling or overprotective. They tend to respond to stress by looking for something secure to rely on or put their trust in. They can get defensive and lash out at others, especially when they aren’t responsible.

In times of crisis, 6s are invited to rely on themselves and act as their own authority. Reclaiming their faith in themselves and others (or in the universe) allows them to accept that there is uncertainty in life and that their insecurity is a natural part of the human experience. Embracing the idea that they are naturally supported can reduce their habit of doubt. Physical self-care activities are a great way to calm down the nervous system and get out of our heads.

Spending time with family and friends - even virtually if necessary - can be really helpful in dealing with stress. It provides an outlet to talk through their concerns with others or to stay busy to keep the anxiety at bay. Fight and flight are reactions to fear, so moving ahead with positive action, despite the fear that is present, can cultivate courage and build self-worth.  



Normally, 7s get stressed when they are overwhelmed with all of the activities and projects in their life. Or maybe they find themselves making the same mistakes over and over again as they attempt to escape their pain. Feeling trapped in all of their commitments is a common stressor for 7s. But in a crisis like this, 7s can feel uninspired and bored because they have stopped filling up their time with activities that allow them to avoid having to face their feelings.

7s tend to react to stress by getting short with people or bailing on commitments. They can act quickly and forcefully without thinking. They might have an air of entitlement or put down others. 7s can get preoccupied with themselves and what they want. They are unwilling to take steps that involve pain or conflict because they believe that to ensure a good life you have to stay positive.

In times of stress, it can help if 7s work on one thing at a time until it is complete. A crisis can be an invitation to appreciate more deeply the feelings and concerns of others and practice loving kindness. Realizing that 7s limit their lives by avoiding pain or loss can help them experience more joy and connection after the crisis resolves. The key is to live more fully in the present moment, instead of fantasizing about future possibilities and projects.

Picking up a new book focused on an area they want to grow in can help provide 7s with something to do that will allow them to explore their inner world and practice being with the way things are. Journaling can also help 7s make their thoughts and feelings more concrete and less overwhelming. Building the capacity to be with feelings of pain, fear, and restlessness rather than trying to escape them will interrupt their default pattern and make it easier in the future.


Hopefully going through the 9 responses to stress described by the Enneagram types, illustrates that there are several different ways that people react. I hope this clarifies your own stress response, and gives you insight into the people you love and what they might be going through.

Regardless of your Enneagram type, one simple way to check in with yourself during times of crisis is to attune to each of your centers - What is the wisdom my body is trying to share with me? How am I feeling? What am I thinking about this situation? Gathering this information can help you to clue into ways to reduce your stress and experience growth during stressful situations or when you feel yourself start to panic.

My hope and dream for you is that you can use this time to become more fully yourself.




[If you are unfamiliar with the Enneagram personality types, I've created an introduction to the 9 types here. If you would like some more ideas for strengthening your vagus nerve or managing anxiety, you can view my post and book review here.]


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