In today‘s world of high-tech, high cost medicine, one thing becomes self-evident. Despite for all practical purposes unheard of medical advances, the pervasiveness of chronic disease puts into question whether or not we are on the right track with our medical research and whether or not there might be other approaches to curtail chronic diseases such as cardiovascular, renal, arthritic, and yes, even cancer.
Why do some people succumb to specific diseases and others stay healthy and active well into later years?
This post will attempt to scratch the surface and delve deeper into comparatively new research.This research reveals that there indeed seems to be a certain personality type that is less prone to chronic disease. People displaying these personality traits will on average live longer, healthier, more productive lives.
What traits are involved then in what we call “The disease resistant personality?”
You may think that only serious disease or intensive physical or mental injury can cause stress. This is false. Crossing a busy intersection, exposure to a draft, or even sheer joy is enough to activate the body’s stress mechanism to some extent. Stress is not even necessarily bad for you: it is also the spice of life, for any emotion any activity causes stress. But, of course, your system must be prepared to take it. The same stress which makes one person sick can be an invigorating experience for another (Selye, 1956).<Tweet This Now>
These are the words of Dr. Selye, one of the pioneers on the study of stress and how stress affects every aspect of our lives. Our immune system responds to any stressor that is presented be that stressor good or bad. Unlike mainstream consensus, we can actively choose how stress will affect us in the short term and the long term. How we react to stress depends on our gender and on stress buffers, which cushion the impact of stress.
These buffers include a sense of control, physical fitness, a sense of humor, social support, self-esteem, optimism, how we cope with stress, and what one researcher calls the “hardiness” personality. Research about some of these stress buffers shows that they indeed might positively affect immune function when faced with otherwise stressful situations. For example, a German study conducted on patients with cardiac insufficiency found that patients perceived their disease more severely and had worse outcomes when they were depressed and had limited social support (Scherer M. et. al., 2006).
Another study looked at the interrelationship of stress and the manifestations of stress symptoms amongst high-income men, when hardiness personality, stressors and social support were taken into account (Acosta, 1990). Acosta found that in the executives, that stressor and hardiness personality each uniquely played a significant role in stress manifestation but social support did not. When the predictors were combined there was a significant correlation in stress manifestation (Acosta, 1990). The author hypothesized that due to the unique position of top-level executives, and what is perceived to be a high stress job; there would be significant stress issues. The author further hypothesize based on previous research, those top-level executives “…have less stressors, more hardiness characteristics, and higher social support” (Acosta, 1990). The researchers concluded that the only predictors of stress manifestations are the stressor itself, and hardiness personality (Acosta, 1990).
This would open up an interesting discussion in comparing the stressors themselves as to how the same category of stressor is perceived differently by each executive. Another interesting mention by the author was the fact that due to the high occurrence in the executives, the “hardiness trait” becomes a constant in this particular group (Acosta, 1990).
It seems that hardiness personality indeed plays a role in the adaptation to stressful situations as shown from the above examples. And with that there is also a direct correlation to the manifestation of disease. One would think that because of the executive’s high stress job, they would succumb to the same chronic diseases nonexecutives do? An executive’s good health might also be contributed to other aspects of the disease resistant personality. Hardiness becomes a clear factor in disease resistance.
But what about social status? Could that play a role also? It clearly is obvious that top level executives enjoy higher social standing than most mortals. Researchers found the following traits to contribute to a disease resistant personality also. Being of the Mormon faith, being a nun, a symphony conductor, and people who are listed in the Who’s Who. Here are other traits that directly contribute to the disease resistant personality. How one manages anger and hostility, depression and grief. Gender differences play a major role in how we cope with stressful situations, substance abuse or misuse. How we handle commitment, control, challenge, and coherence. And of course the healthful choices we make also play a major role in disease resilience.
How does one develop a disease resistant personality?
Suzanne Kobasa, a leading researcher in the field of PNI and the hardiness personality has the following advice for us. It involves two exercises. The first is by compensating for a stressful event that is beyond one’s control such as a sudden death in the family, or loss of a job.
How does one compensate?
By focusing the energy that would ordinarily go into dealing with the event that is beyond one‘s control, on a new challenge, that will be within the realm of ones control.
The second strategy is to reconstruct stressful situations by recalling a particularly stressful event. Try to remember as many details as possible, then one needs to start writing down three outcomes that could have been worse, and three outcomes that show an improvement to the situation.
And here is what this exercise does for you:
It makes you realize that things didn’t turn out as bad as they could have, putting a new perspective on stress. The improved version of the stressful event will jolt one‘s creative mind on how to deal with the situation better the next time, which will relieve stress about the future.
The final, most important realization comes from the sense of control that is achieved by teaching a person that they can influence the way life happens. This is the very premise of resilience, the feeling of control and the recognition that you are ultimately in charge of the events that happen to you.
How about you? Do you have a favorite technique to deal with stressors small and big? Let me know in the comments…
Acosta S. (1990). “The interrelationship of stressors, hardiness personality and social support on the severity of manifestations of stress symptoms among high-income men.” College Park, Maryland: University of Maryland College Park, Ph.D. dissertation, Retrieved December 2, 2007, from ProQuest Digital Dissertations database. (Publication No. AAT 9121307). —p.11
Scherer M. et. al. (June 2006) “Psychische Kosymptomatik von Hausärztlichen Patienten mit Herzinsuffizienz.” Herz. 31.4 : 347(8). Academic OneFile. Gale. LIRN. 9 Dec. 2007
Selye H. (1956). The stress of life [Yes, this is an affiliate link. If you buy this from me, I’ll earn coffee money so I can stay up at night writing posts like this]. New York, NY: McGraw Hill. Preface