Type A personalities are competitive, time urgent, aggressive and suffer from chronic high stress. The term Type A personality was first coined in the 1950s by two cardiologists, Meyer Friedman and Ray Rosenman, who studied the risk of heart disease in association with Type A personality traits, prompted by how quickly their patients wore out the arms of the chairs in their waiting room. Their hypothesis describes Type A personalities as competitive, highly organized, ambitious, impatient, highly aware of time management and aggressive. After an eight year study of healthy men aged 35 to 59, they concluded that Type A behaviour doubles the risk of coronary heart disease in otherwise healthy individuals.
Type A and heart disease
I’ll tell you straight off the bat that although I came across this study entirely by ‘accident’ in Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book Full Catastrophe Living, I do have a personal interest. I consider myself a fit, clean living and health conscious person, steeped in years of meditation practice and other mind management techniques, but still I had a severe heart attack in 2017 at aged 55 during an early morning run on the beach. It took me by surprise and sharpened my focus on the life I was leading, the lives so many of us lead that are not entirely conducive to thriving. A couple of weeks before the heart attack, I had given up my I.T. career for good, ending a very stressful role in a startup when I became aware that the stress was killing me. Rather prophetic, as it turned out.
What is a Type A Personality?
So back to Type A. When I discovered this research, I identified immediately and strongly with the characteristics described, from a longer list including organized, status-conscious, sensitive, impulsive, angry, defensive, impatient, perfectionist, anxious and proactive. Type A men (there were no women in the study) are often high-achieving workaholics, hating delays and ambivalence. They typically experience high job-related stress and less job satisfaction.
When I started reading about Type A personality in Kabat-Zinn’s book, ideas started to come together in my mind. Kabat-Zinn is a research scientist and mindfulness teacher who in 1979 developed the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program at the University of Massachusetts for sufferers of chronic pain and stress disorders. I was reading the book and doing the MBSR daily mindful practises – yoga, body scan and sitting meditation – to rehabilitate from a serious road accident 6 months after my heart attack. I had received loud and clear the message that I was to slow down!
If you have any interest in the MBSR program, I can heartily recommend both the exercises and Full Catastrophe Living, which is packed with research, theory and discussion on stress, pain, mindfulness and mind-body healing. As you will see, I have leaned heavily on his work for this article.
Old dog, new tricks
Since the early work of the Type A research and Kabat-Zinn, study in to areas such as neuroplasticity, epigenetics, health psychology and positive psychology has exploded. I’m always glad to know this, as it supports the idea that you CAN teach an old dog new tricks and that we retain some degree of control over how we live our lives and what is possible for us.
Our thoughts and belief systems play a big part in how we live our lives, our physical and mental health and the levels of fulfilment we experience. We can train ourselves in techniques such as mindfulness meditation to calm our minds and direct our thoughts to the positive spectrum or we can allow or indulge in unrestrained negative thinking that frequently triggers our adrenal system and the cycle of fear, anxiety, stress and panic.
How stress affects humans
The wide-ranging detrimental effects of stress have been under ever closer scrutiny in recent years, for example gut-brain, gut-heart and the antics of the gut microbiome when it’s hit simultaneously by our modern diet, lifestyle, chemical environment, social (dis)engagement and chronic stress. If our gut function is disrupted by stress, this powerhouse pivotal to all the other systems and processes of the body fails to maintain equilibrium. We literally starve ourselves instead of nurturing ourselves. Our organs, glands, muscles and brain suffer. Everything suffers. The basic nutrients, such as magnesium required for over 300 essential processes in the body, don’t make it through. Gut imbalance is known to contribute to mental dis-ease and mood disorders (Alzheimers, dementia, ADHD, autism, depression, anxiety) .
I have recently been focussing – out of self-interest if nothing else – on all things stress-related but in particular WHY and HOW we stress. Where stress comes from, how we turn it chronic and how we can turn that back around.
Dr Engel’s biopsychosocial model from 1977 proposed that factors affecting susceptibility to illness include beliefs, social support, stress exposure and behaviour. We know that humans can learn to control heart rate, skin temperature, blood pressure and brain waves and we know from positive psychology that an attitude of optimism or pessimism affects health outcomes. Pessimism dampens the hormonal and immune system, whereas optimism has a protective effect.
It’s helpful to consider that over our lifetimes we have built a vast bank of beliefs that we subsequently act on subconsciously. We rarely inspect these beliefs for usefulness or even truth, but we don’t HAVE to believe our thoughts. By bringing thoughts and beliefs to awareness we can review how they affect us and consider replacing them and thus developing a new relationship with what stresses us.
Strong silent men
For men there is arguably still social pressure to cope with everything, to hide ‘un-desirable’ emotions and signs of instability or ‘weakness’. Under duress, if we bow to this pressure we will choose to suppress our stress responses, preventing them from going through their normal cycle and dissipating. Stress hormones build up in our bodies and stressful thoughts stay with us. Habitually perpetuating stress affects our minds and bodies, and can lead to high blood pressure, inflammation, headaches, backaches, anxiety, cognitive impairment and many other diseases. If it’s long term, it can also foster depression and even addiction as we try to find ways of silently coping whilst in denial of our real situation.
There is a lack of trust implicit in such behaviour – we don’t trust ourselves, because we’re out of whack with our truth and we don’t trust others, to whom we could turn for support. This is a maladaptive stress response that does not promote resilience and which may easily deteriorate over time as our negative beliefs around stress strengthen with repetition. It also separates us from our fellows, potentially intensifying the suffering and adding loneliness to the mix. Social isolation and loneliness present a major public health issue, adversely affecting health and longevity and posing a greater health risk than smoking or obesity.
The antidote to chronic stress consists of many small actions to support our true self and allow us to re-integrate with the support systems we sorely need. We need to recognise our own agency to bring about positive change and actually make that change.
In fact, it’s clear that we have power over our thoughts and actions, which gives us the tools we need to develop self-efficacy and resilience to stress in our lives. So how we do this?
My work is based on helping clients essentially deal with exactly this. I work with Type A men who share a need to better manage their stress, health and human connections. We work together on developing better thought habits to reduce stress and support their personal goals. It’s simple work, but any change is demanding. Where beliefs or ‘thought habits’ have caused or prolonged stress, the work is to bring those thoughts to the conscious mind and choose to build new beliefs.
12 tips to moderate stress
For anyone suffering prolonged stress, self-care is enormously important and any of these tips will help.
- Establish meaningful and supportive social connections
- Consider having a pet
- Honour your self and your needs
- Practice meditation or yoga
- Get out in to nature
- Eat a ‘Real food’ diet
- Stay hydrated
- Reduce toxic chemical exposure
- Get good quality sleep
- Have fun
- Manage your thoughts and emotions*
*As a coach, I believe it’s this last one that contains the biggest and most enduring payoff and this is where I can help. If you want to test your own stress personality type, take the quiz below and get a free personalised assessment from me along with some ideas on managing your stress.
 Full Catastrophe Living, Jon Kabat-Zinn 1990 978-0-345-53693-8
 https://brokenbrain.com Mark Hyman MD
 Engel GL: The need for a new medical model: a challenge for biomedicine. Science 1977;196:129-136.