Personality and Adrenal Fatigue

As many of you know, I am a lifelong student of human performance and function.  I never tire of learning new things and pondering old ones when it comes to what makes us tick and what might be a good way to keep us ticking just a little better or a little longer.  Of course this has been true for me in topics such as training and injury management, but, as many of you know, my interests in wellness have always taken me into many related subjects.

I’ve been studying psychology as a hobby (I did take 4-5 college courses in the subject, but that makes me no expert) since the 80’s, and particularly the topic of personality.  While there are a number of schools of thought, tests, and methodologies surrounding human personality, my focus has concentrated on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), which is an extension of Carl Jung’s work done by mother/daughter team Katherine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs-Myers.  The MBTI has been extensively validated and there have been numerous outstanding books and articles written about it.  I have read over a dozen of these and I’ve been applying some of the concepts of MBTI to my work and personal life for several decades.  Because there are so many references available, I won’t cite any here.  You can Google to your heart’s desire, or contact me personally for suggestions if you’d like to study further.

I won’t even try to fully summarize the MBTI here, but will instead jump immediately into what Briggs and Myers presented as basically 4 key personality parameters in humans.  Each of those categories has two complementary traits that exist on a continuum.  Basically, using “51% thinking”, in other words, which side of the fence would you be on at least 51% of the time or more, the Instrument can help you determine which “letter” you get in each of the 4 categories, thus making 16 different personality types to identify the population.  This is not necessarily a rigid “labelling” system, but merely a tool to help us understand our tendencies and preferences.  I highly recommend taking the MBTI (these days it can be done for free in minutes online) to possibly learn a little more about yourself and those close to you.  It was Briggs and Myers’ intention to help people maximize productivity, happiness, and understanding in life.

The first trait in MBTI (in terms of order) is that of Extraversion/Introversion.  Thus, in an MBTI lettering system, you either get an “E” or an “I” as your first letter of your personality type.  Put simply, this continuum helps us to describe or understand where we put our attention and how we get our energy.  Do you like to spend time in the outer world of people and things (E), or in your inner world of ideas and images (I)?  Again, there is no rank or score associated with this, just the appreciation that either by the smallest or largest majority, most of us fall into one of the two categories of “I” or “E”.  

I’m going to return to Introverted and Extraverted personality traits in a moment, but allow me to now briefly describe a popular term known as “adrenal fatigue”.  This is now somewhat generally accepted as a precursor to adrenal failure, which is an autoimmune disorder known as Addison’s disease.  The adrenal glands, working together with your hypothalamus and pituitary gland (known as the HPA axis), control the production of the stress hormone cortisol as well as DHEA and epinephrine.  A textbook on hormone regulation we shall not write here, so for simplicity’s sake (and there is nothing simple in the human endocrine system), let’s just accept that the adrenal glands produce cortisol in response to stress.  

Now stress, and cortisol, like most other constituents of human function, exist on a continuum.  We need a little stress to keep us engaged, alert, and functioning.  But too much is certainly a bad thing.  Stress can be of any type, such as psychological (worry and anxiety), physiological (a crisis or even overdoing it with exercise), environmental (being outside in a blizzard), etc.  All stressors work in an interrelated and cumulative fashion. That is one reason why I have struggled to convince my clients for decades that if you are in the middle of a job change, a move, a divorce, etc., then that is not the time to really try to elevate your training.  Nobody ever listens, but I won’t give up bringing that message.  We are actually “wired” to deal more effectively with intermittent and even somewhat high stressors (fight or flight reactions) than the long-term, chronic (“IV drip of death”) that modern life often epitomizes.  That is one reason why stress balancing is perhaps a better term than stress management or reduction.  A low-to-moderate amount of stress, and cortisol production is normal.  The problem with moderately high, chronic levels of stress are that we have long-term or sustained elevations of cortisol in the body, and this leads to elevated heart rate, increased blood pressure, nervousness, anxiety, weight gain, sleep deprivation, chronic fatigue, and ultimately immune system depletion.  While the relationship between chronic stress, high cortisol levels, adrenal fatigue, and ultimately immune system suppression is not overly simple, I will just state that it is a recognizable sequelae.  The over-worked and fatigued adrenals then begin to wreak havoc with all our necessary and healthy bodily functions.

Whew!  Got that baseline established.  So where am I going with this?  I’ve noticed over the past 30 years in working with thousands of clients that those whose stress levels exceeded their own personal thresholds for breakdown (and this is dynamic in the individual), that many of them, and I probably should say MOST of them, had suppressed immune systems and struggled with colds, allergies, and even more aches and pain.  OK, that’s nothing new or special, but then I started to reflect more deeply, and I seemed to find (again, this is a reflection/opinion but does involve several thousand subjects), that the majority (back to 51% or greater, and I think quite a bit greater in this case) of cases of adrenal fatigue that I was seeing would have been introverts according to Myers-Briggs.  Whoa!  Where are the randomized clinical trials, the appropriate experimental design with double-blind conditions and has there been a meta-analysis on them?  There has not been much work done on the topic but I found this article in Psychology Today which suggests that people who are “sensitive” have more chronic fatigue.

This leads me to describe a stress-processing system that probably exists in all of us, and is probably similar among most introverts and similar among most extraverts, but significantly different between most introverts and most extraverts.  Since I live in Montana, I’m going to use a cattle-processing facility as my model for describing stress-processing.  Because I’m an advocate for good nutrition, let’s first assume that all the cattle in this example are grass-fed, pastured animals that are free of antibiotics, artificial growth hormones, and are treated in the most humane and cruelty-free manner.  Without being overly descriptive of every step in the process (and purposely accelerating timelines), we need to get the cattle from outside of a pen (whether they are being herded from range or off-loaded from a truck), into a pen, then through a number of processing steps, packaged, and delivered to the market.  Each cow or steer will represent an equivalent amount of stressor.

Let’s start with the “Introverted Cattle-Processing System”.  The introvert is very good at reviewing and rehearsing procedure and technique.  As each steer is introduced into the pen, the Introvert has a strong need to place it in order, and to take it personally through each step of the process with precision.  Introverts put great thought into the processing of each steer, and in properly performing each step.  They make few errors and produce outstanding work.  They will make sure that everything is done thoroughly and according to protocol.  But in this fictitious model, introverts don’t like to delegate very much, and need to almost exhaust the process of turning steers on the hoof into ribeyes in the market.  It is almost as though the introvert establishes a personal relationship with every steer and every step of the process, and is not satisfied, nor able to release the product to market, until it is done absolutely, completely, right.  This is even more true if the introvert has a “J” at the end of his/her MBTI letter sequence (promised I wouldn’t go into further but you can ask me).  Consequently, then, the stress that the cattle represent must be handled very sequentially, and if stresses are introduced too rapidly, the introvert does not get a break, has a chronically challenging workload, and ultimately the meat-producing operation breaks down (which is immune system failure in our introvert). Introverts need to plan proactively on the front end of their operation, so that the number of cattle (stressors) coming into their pen, is always at a comfortable level for their system.

On the other hand, take the “Extraverted Cattle-Processing System”.  The extravert loves the stimulation of the event.  All the mooing, bellowing, and clamor is not a distraction, but an excitement for the extravert.  Not usually as good as the introvert on procedure and precision, the extravert is more comfortable with multi-tasking, delegation, and living  with a bit more chaos.  So the extravert enlists the help of more machines and people and can produce a bit more volume.  There are a few more errors but these are overlooked and not taken too seriously.  Especially if that extravert has a letter “P” at the end of his or her MBTI personality.  It takes quite a bit more “cattle load” for the extraverted system to start to become frazzled.  “E’s” will often find ways to utilize the external environment to dissipate stress, or get the cattle processed.  Extraverts are capable of reacting to increased stress loads on the back end of their operations by using extrinsic tools.
This is not to say that there is not quite a bit of overlap in any descriptor of human function, but I tried to paint a clear picture (tough on this topic with just words – Debbie, my artist, where are you?).  My experience is that introverts can balance stress more effectively by controlling to the extent possible the events of the day, with an eye on keeping things manageable.  This is certainly good advice for anyone, but extraverts sometimes require more stimuli, and then deal with the excesses by using management, as opposed to reduction, strategies.  Introverts benefit greatly from stress-reducing planning, and extraverts often function best by utilizing stress-managing interventions.  The key for both personalities is to avoid letting stress get above the personal threshold for breakdown, as this leads to adrenal fatigue and immune suppression.  Keep an eye on the number of cattle coming into your “pen”, and use the best methods for getting them out the other side.  We simply cannot separate our physiology from our psychology.  Thanks for reading!


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