What is a Type A Personality?

Type A Personality. It looks good on a resume. It sings of straight A’s on your report card. And, like it does in the alphabet, it implies good things to come while standing at the head of any line.

As a matter of fact, if you’ve tossed the phrase “I’m a Type A personality” out as a brag at your latest job interview, the implications are clearly defined in your mind: you are a multi-tasking, hard-working, results-driven individual who will put the job first. In your eyes, there is no “second”. You are driven to succeed and win. 

In our fast-paced, competitive American workforce, the go-getting Type A personality traits are touted as not just a bonus, but a requirement. But there’s a dark side to this personality, which is linked to higher levels of work-obsession and stress. 

What is a Type A Personality?

Type A was first publicized in a 1974 book by two cardiologists, Meyer Friedman and Ray H. Rosenman, after analyzing the way patients behaved in their waiting room. Unlike patients in other waiting areas, cardiac patients tended to get in and out of their chairs frequently and sat on the literal edge of their seats—think wired and fidgety energy. The cardiologists coined the phrase ‘Type A’ to refer to this specific set of behavioral responses, which means it’s a personality spectrum of traits as opposed to a specific personality typology.

In a nutshell, Type A refers to people who respond to stressful circumstances in an external way. These types accept challenges head-on and look for ways to manipulate their environment to direct the outcome. They are optimistic, energetic, practical, ambitious and tend to achieve what they apply themselves to. Proactive and conscientious, they typically are perceived as a welcome addition to the workplace.

However, because Type As thrive in challenging environments, they often will struggle in areas where competition is unnecessary and even ill-advised, such as relationships. Like a bull in the proverbial china shop, Type As can earn words like aggressive, workaholic, overreactive, controlling, perfectionist, or interrupting. They may even cross into the territory of self-critical, anxious or overwhelmed.

What happens when the strengths of a Type A turn into stress?

Type A: a Heart Attack Waiting to Happen?

Originally, the cardiologists put the cart before the horse. They thought that the Type A traits they were observing caused their patients to become cardiac patients. When you carry all that stress and uptight energy, you’re a heart attack waiting to happen—or so the theory went.   

Now though, the latest studies have debunked the notion that Type A behavior will lead to hypertension and coronary heart disease. Factors like obesity, smoking, cholesterol counts and diabetes are much higher risk. The behavioral traits of Type A are only risk factors because an aggressive reaction to emotional stress increases the emotional stress. Chronic stress is considered a contributing risk factor for heart disease and leads to many other health issues.

When reactions to stress occur, the body is subjected to the hormones adrenaline and cortisol, creating a fight or flight response and suppressing the digestive, reproductive, and immune systems. Type As tend to fight and continue the cycle of stress without a break, wearing the body out through constant struggle. In their effort to control stressful situations, they can find themselves more out of control than ever.

Combined with lifestyle behaviors commonly used to combat stress, such as smoking, drinking, or overeating, Type As could set themselves up for potential health consequences.

But here’s the thing ... so could anyone. 

Let’s take a look.

The other Types: B, C, and D

Type A gets all the press, perhaps because it’s the more externally identifiable one, but there are three other behavioral types to consider. We all experience stress but each of us responds to it in our own way.

Type B refers to people who respond to stressful situations in a fairly relaxed, easygoing way—generally the exact opposite to Type A. Words to describe Type B include non-competitive, tolerant, reflective, creative and imaginative. This group tends to let the world go by, sometimes unintentionally, as they procrastinate. Most people use a sliding scale between Type A and Type B to classify their own particular reaction to stress.

Type C refers to people who respond to stressful situations in a more pacifying way. Words that describe them include conflict avoidance, over compliant, patient, quiet, thoughtful and passive. This group internalizes stress and tends to stifle their reaction to it.

Type D refers to people who respond to stressful situations with an overall pessimistic approach. Words to describe them include isolated, catastrophist, negative, worried, tense, insecure or methodical. This group tends to shelter themselves and carry a constant fear of rejection.

We already know that stress triggers the fight or flight response, but the form that takes depends on your personality type. Type As usually choose to fight, whereas Types B, C, and D tend in the flight direction.

Mindful Mitigation

Without conscious mitigation, Type As tend to lead a lifestyle imbalance that weighs heavily on work and lightly on relaxation. They tend to tightly schedule themselves with commitments, multitask, and become impatient with delays in an effort to be productive. Does this sound familiar? Our commitments come before playtime. However, if we discover that playtime never arrives, it’s time to do some evaluating.

And, because this group tends to respond with definitive action to stress stimuli in a way that overrides their ability to enjoy the efforts, we need to draw up a battle plan to move from “stressed” back into “strength”. To find joy in the journey.

Here are some ways to reduce the stress in your life and move towards a happy balance:

1. Harness that proactive energy to think about changing areas in your lifestyle, diet, environment, relationships, or even sleep patterns that could decrease your stress levels. Examine any underlying physical or mental issues that are contributing to your reactions to stress stimuli.

Techniques proven to mitigate emotional responses include yoga, meditation, deep breathing, and cuddling a puppy or a child, all of which release oxytocin or endorphins that improve your mood and act as natural painkillers.

2. Healthy behaviors aren't for lesser mortals. If your doctor has been nudging you to exercise or give up smoking, know that making healthy changes can often send you into an "upward spiral" of feeling more energetic, relaxed, and connected.

3. Spend time with friends who relax and recharge you. Laugh more. Say ‘No’ more. Listen to music that sings to your heart or the sounds of nature.

4. Discover ways to enjoy intrinsic rewards. Practice gratitude, celebrate progress, and give back to others, instead of relying on external rewards like wealth, status, or power.

5. Learn more about who you are. The Type A description may resonate, but it doesn't describe the core of who you are—your motivations, your values, and what you were truly put on this earth to do. More in-depth personality assessments can help you reflect on what really drives you and give you a broader perspective on what's important to you.

Relaxing is hard work for Type As. Take it as seriously as your next client meeting. Schedule it into your calendar. Make it a goal. Tick the box; feel amazing. Each step you take, no matter how small, leads towards a healthier and happier life.

Jolie Tunnell

Jolie Tunnell is a freelance writer and blogger with a background in administration and education. Raising a Variety Pack of kids with her husband, she serves up hard-won wisdom with humor, compassion and insight. Jolie is an ISTJ and lives in San Diego, California where - aided by innumerable pots of Yorkshire Gold tea - her first novel is in progress. Visit her at jolietunnell.com

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