Many psychologists believe that stress is a common cause of many illnesses, both physically and psychologically. So how does a person’s personality contribute to their levels of stress and thus make them a target for stress related illnesses such as coronary heart disease? This essay aims to look at definitions for stress and personality and see how the relationship between these can produce disease in the human body. The essay will also look at evidence for stress and its affect on health and personality types and how stress is associated with them.
Stress can be defined as ‘a physical, mental, or emotional reaction resulting from individual’s response to environmental tensions, conflicts, pressures and similar stimuli’ (Fontana & Abouserie, 1993). Introduced to the world by a physiologist called Walter Cannon in 1914 and introduced to the scientific field with experiment by Hans Seyle throughout the 1930s, stress is considered a bodily response, with a stress causing stimulus referred to as a stressor.
This essay aims to outline how personality is related to stress and how ultimately this can lead to disease in a person’s body as well as analysing existing evidence of the link between personality and disease. Kiecolt-Glaser performed many studies on people to see if stress had an effect on the immune system. The aim of her experiments were not to find out if stress had an effect on psychological or physical health, but to see if stress to see if the immune system would decrease during periods of stress, leaving the body vulnerable to colds and other common illnesses.
She found, through using control groups, that people in much more stressful situations would have a much weaker immune system (Kiecolt-Glaser et al, 1984, 1987) Personality can be defined as ‘a person’s unique pattern of traits’ (Guilford 1959). They are the individual differences that define a person, making each person different. Personalities can, however, be categorised so that people can be grouped and viewed as a personality type. There are many ways to categorise different types of personalities or personality traits, such as Sheldon’s Physique Dimensions theory in 1942.
This proposed that people act a certain way depending upon their physical appearance. However, concerning health and its relation to personality most psychologists use Friedman and Rosenman’s division of Type A or Type B. The work by Friedman and Rosenman examined Coronary Heart Disease (CHD), proposing that a certain personality trait would increase the vulnerability of such a stress-related illness. He called people who posses the trait Type As and people who didn’t Type B. A Type A personality is someone who is not resilient, thy show personality traits such as competitiveness, hostility and confrontation.
A Type B is someone who shows traits such as relaxed, serenity and lack of time urgency. Other psychologists looked at the work by Friedman and Rosenman, and tested them for different factors. Some of these experiments found that the high levels of hostility and aggression in Type As were the cause of CHD. Williams (1989) looked at controlling risk factors like age, weight and smoking, and found that there was a link between hostility and CHD. Williams also found that hostility openly expressed is less damaging than hostility repressed.
The work by Friedman and Rosenman can almost be criticised by saying is that in their theory Type As are more competitive and are better at sports. With physical exercise being a prime method of avoiding stress-related illness, why does this not help them decrease the risk of CHD? A model of Personality and Disease can help answer this. The Personality-Induced Hyperactivity model shows that health risk is brought on by psychological hyperactivity, which is directly a cause by personality and a stressful situation.
It was found that Type A personalities experience a greater increase in blood pressure and heart rate during a stressful situation. Combined with stronger cognitive and emotional threat while feeling the need to be in control and striving for success, leads to increased damage to the inner lining of arterial vessels and development of coronary plaques resulting in narrowed arteries. The hyperactivity also causes cardiac arrhythmias, which can directly cause cardiac death (Contrada & Krantz, 1988; Houston, 1983).
Work by Dembroski & Costa (1987) and Williams, Barefoot & Shekelle (1985) also found that the hyperactivity found in Type A personalities is the direct cause of the hostility commonly found in this personality type and can be described as a ‘toxic’ element for causing CHD. The problem with this model though, is that it presumes that hyperactivity is exclusively connected to CHD. The evidence from Kiecolt-Glaser shows that SNS can be linked to the depression of the immune system.
This would put Type A personalities at risk from nonvascular illnesses as well, increasing their overall risk of infections and diseases. Also Holmes (1983) tested the difference in blood pressure between Type A and Type B personalities, finding little difference between the two. Putting Type Bs at just as much risk as Type As. Another model of personality and stress is the “Personality as Precipitator of Dangerous behaviours” model. This model proposes that certain personality traits confer greater illness risk depending upon the risk involved in the circumstance.
This model presents the fact that Type As may smoke to relieve stress (McCrae, 1978) because they cannot handle stressful situations in a relaxed way like Type Bs. If Type As are more prone to take up smoking this puts them at the risk of developing lung cancer. One study led by Yoshitaka Tsubono examined personality traits and their links to cancer. After issuing a personality test to which 30,277 participants returned, it was found that having a strong personality type had no effect on whether or not a person would develop cancer, instead the only risks were lack of exercise, smoking and healthy eating.
Another theory of personality that features stress and disease, as a direct result of a personality trait, is that of Eysenck’s (1947) Dimensions of Personality. During the Second World War Eysenck worked at a military psychiatric hospital in London, during which he factor analysed 39 items from 700 case histories. The 39 items consisted of diagnostic categories, symptoms, vague observations, and biological facts. Of the four factors he extracted from this analysis he interpreted two.
On his chart he labelled the vertical axis “neuroticism” and the horizontal axis “hysteria and dysthymia” but later renamed it “introversion and extroversion”. He sorted the information by taking groups of extreme introverts, extroverts or neurotics and then comparing them in laboratory tests such as leg persistence, manual dexterity and body sway. He then set them each the Mauldsley Medical Questionnaire. The final chart showed that people with high levels of introversion and low levels of neuroticism were found to have depression and anxiety issues.
Others with low levels in all areas of the chart experienced pain and turned to alcohol. Those with high levels of neuroticism were said to have badly organised personalities and poor muscular tone. People were high up on the extravert scale were said to have little energy and hysterical conversion. This chart is good for viewing how maintaining high levels of extroversion or introversion can lead to health risks, however the chart is very varied, with health risks and eemingly positive situations, such as marriage being right next to headaches and irritability. Also the fact that all these records were taken from a period of war they are not necessarily a representation of everyday life. Extreme psychological stress can be cause by war to all people, let alone soldiers who were actually put in a battle situation. In conclusion it seems that there is an obvious link between some personality traits and how their health is affected. It is not necessarily the personality alone that has an effect though.
Individual differences such as smoking, unhealthy eating and lack of exercise are definite causes for some health risks, but all of these can be linked to a personality trait, such as eating unhealthy food as an act of depression. An often-overlooked factor in most studies is also that personalities change constantly throughout a person’s life. So someone who is considered a Type A one day may be considered Type B another. Making it difficult to pin point how much time someone must follow a personality trait before putting his or her health at risk.
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