Resilient, anxious or avoidant: which stress type are you, and how do you deal with problems?

By Beth Cooper Howell
  • We all get a little stressed out from time-to-time! Identifying what sort of stress type you are can help you figure out how to cope
  • Once you understand the way you respond to stress, the easier it will be to learn to be resilient
By Beth Cooper Howell |

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School students tend to have three main mindsets and ways of dealing with challenges and stressful situations: resilient, anxious or avoidant.

Fear and stress can lead to low motivation, difficulty communicating, friendship problems, poor grades and feeling down.

Clinical psychologist and author of Unlocking Your Child’s Genius, Dr Andrew Fuller, says that knowing which stress type you are will help you to cope with triggers that fuel your anxiety – and develop the best type of “stress type” that he has found, called a Resilient Mindset.

The stress types are based on the Australian non-profit organisation Resilient Youth’s research on 160,000 young people.

You may be one type, a mix of two types, a little of all three, or more of one and a dash of the other. Either way, once you understand the way you respond to stress, the easier it will be to get a grip and start using the secret weapon of resilience to take you from zero to hero in a flash.

Don’t let fear and anxiety get the best of you

The anxious type

You’re the type of guy or girl who habitually freezes in the face of new challenges, says Fuller.

Anxiety levels may soar, overwhelming you and leading to feelings of panic – which then results in shying away from new experiences and opportunities for learning.

Receiving a mountain of homework, for example, may send you into a spin. You’re convinced that you don’t have enough time to complete it and you imagine worst-case scenarios, instead of sitting down and working out a step-by-step plan.

“Feelings of nausea, shaking, fear and panic often accompany this state. [Some] students in this mindset may attempt a task, but then rush through it to get it over and done with as quickly as possible.”

Experiencing anxiety at this level “substantially interferes” with memory functioning and thinking. Naturally, this leads to more stress at school and the possibility of lower grades and not reaching your potential.

The avoidant type

Although at first you may seem more “chilled” than your anxious peers, you’re actually subconsciously trying to escape from the demands of school.

You’re the type who responds to challenges with a fight, or more commonly, flight response.

This type may distract, question the validity of the work or become angry, distant and uncommunicative, says Fuller.

You might find yourself interrupting your BFF with streams of texts when you’re both supposed to be studying, or at the other extreme, vanishing into thin air, refusing to go out or communicate with others, preferring to stare at YouTube videos while pretending to finish a maths problem or summarise your history notes.

Essentially, you want to be anywhere but here right now – and secretly feel that if you ignore reality, perhaps it will go away.

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The resilient type

This is who we all want to be. Sometimes, we get it right, but mostly, it takes effort and determination to shift your brain into resilient mode. The good news? It can be done.

A balanced, positive attitude towards school and life is typical of a true resilient type. You may know one or two at school or be one yourself – a hard-working, friendly and organised guy or gal who doesn’t give up and sees challenges as opportunities.

When something goes wrong, you don’t give in to failure or depression; you simply try again. When you’re faced with a mountain of studying, you don’t waste time complaining; you sit down and draft a study plan.

Of course, nobody can be resilient all the time. But the difference between a resilient type and an anxious/avoidant one is a can-do, rather than can’t-do, attitude.

Fixing your type

Tricking yourself into becoming a resilient type is easier than you think. Take a look at these common scenarios and focus on how the resilient type deals with them.

• A huge, scary project with a horrible deadline

Anxious types freeze, don’t know where to start, feel almost paralysed with fear, and can’t stop thinking about anything except the project. They may cry and give up even before they’ve begun; or expect to get a really bad grade. They also assume that they are stupid or failures.

Avoidant types either become angry or distracted, avoid looking at the project and procrastinate. Days or weeks go by before they get stuck in – and the deadline looms closer. They blame school, their parents, their friends and the education system for making their lives hell.

Resilient types get just as much of a fright when they see how much work is involved, but they move past the stress and seek support (from their teachers, study notes, time-planning skills, etc). Although they might initially freeze (anxious type) or get stuck in fight/flight mode (avoidant type), their eventual strategy is to “tend, mend and befriend”. In other words, they face the challenge head-on and don’t allow their feelings to take over.

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• Making a big mistake

Everybody makes mistakes. Nobody is perfect, regardless of how much we would like to be.

Anxious types see mistakes as personal failings and a symbol of complete failure. They may blame themselves for any difficulties and feel ashamed and worried. They are likely to overreact to the error, giving it too much negativity and importance.

They may also have huge trouble sleeping, owing to worrying.

Avoidant types often view a mistake as a reason to give up. “What’s the point of trying again, if I’m just going to fail again?” They often blame other people or circumstances for what happened, avoiding responsibility and refusing to deal with the issue. Underneath it all, they feel ashamed.

These types may sleep too much or spend a lot of time on distracting activities, such as gaming, in order to escape from reality.

Resilient types know that mistakes happen, even to the most successful people. They don’t blame themselves too much, and they don’t spend time blaming other people, either. Instead of hating themselves or others, they focus on the fact that every mistake is an opportunity for learning. “What can I learn from this?”

A resilient person does his or her best during the day and goes to bed knowing this. Naturally, they sleep better than the other types as a result.

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• Social problems or peer pressure

Anxious types are people-pleasers and depend on others’ approval. They find it difficult to make decisions on their own and often ask friends for advice. If they have a fight with a bestie or there’s tension on the social scene, they find it difficult to concentrate at school and are overwhelmed by anxious thoughts. They may be bullied.

Avoidant types might try the opposite approach, pretending not to care if they’re not on speaking terms with a BFF, or less than popular. They also don’t ask for help easily and tend to ignore advice, preferring to make decisions on their own. Secretly, they may feel lonely.

Resilient types will ask for advice when necessary, but trust themselves enough to make their own decisions. While they don’t enjoy fall-outs with friends, they won’t collapse in a puddle of despair if negotiations or attempted patch-ups don’t work. They know that bad times don’t last forever and that time does heal hurts.

How to help yourself

Once you know what your triggers are, you’ll find it easier to flip the negative type switch over to resilient mode. This takes practice, but it can be done, says Fuller.

“If you can’t make a mistake, you’ll never do anything new. No one gets everything right the first time they try. In fact, making mistakes is the way we learn.

“Know that geniuses make mistakes. People who achieve a lot know that you have to make mistakes to learn! If you get too scared to make a mistake, you will not do anything different or new in your life and that would be, well, a mistake.

“Acknowledge your inner genius. You are much, much smarter than you know. If you practise doing your best in life, you will succeed, because very few people ever practise doing their best.”

Remember: if you look for what’s going to go wrong, you will always find it. If you look for what works, life just gets a lot easier.

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