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15.4: Protecting Our Health

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    An important question that health psychologists ask is, What keeps us protected from disease and alive longer? When considering this issue of resilience (Rutter, 1985), five factors are often studied in terms of their ability to protect (or sometimes harm) health. They are:

    1. Coping
    2. Control and Self-Efficacy
    3. Social Relationships
    4. Dispositions and Emotions
    5. Stress Management

    Coping Strategies

    How individuals cope with the stressors they face can have a significant impact on health. Coping is often classified into two categories: problem-focused coping or emotion-focused coping (Carver et al., 1989). Problem-focused coping is thought of as actively addressing the event that is causing stress in an effort to solve the issue at hand. For example, say you have an important exam coming up next week. A problem-focused strategy might be to spend additional time over the weekend studying to make sure you understand all of the material. Emotion-focused coping, on the other hand, regulates the emotions that come with stress. In the above examination example, this might mean watching a funny movie to take your mind off the anxiety you are feeling. In the short term, emotion-focused coping might reduce feelings of stress, but problem-focused coping seems to have the greatest impact on mental wellness (Billings & Moos, 1981; Herman-Stabl et al., 1995). That being said, when events are uncontrollable (e.g., the death of a loved one), emotion-focused coping directed at managing your feelings, at first, might be the better strategy. Therefore, it is always important to consider the match of the stressor to the coping strategy when evaluating its plausible benefits.

    Control and Self-Efficacy

    Another factor tied to better health outcomes and an improved ability to cope with stress is having the belief that you have control over a situation. For example, in one study where participants were forced to listen to unpleasant (stressful) noise, those who were led to believe that they had control over the noise performed much better on proofreading tasks afterwards (Glass & Singer, 1972). In other words, even though participants did not have actual control over the noise, the control belief aided them in completing the task. In similar studies, perceived control benefited immune system functioning (Sieber et al., 1992). Outside of the laboratory, studies have shown that older residents in assisted living facilities, which are notorious for low control, lived longer and showed better health outcomes when given control over something as simple as watering a plant or choosing when student volunteers came to visit (Rodin & Langer, 1977; Schulz & Hanusa, 1978). In addition, feeling in control of a threatening situation can actually change stress hormone levels (Dicker- son & Kemeny, 2004). Believing that you have control over your own behaviors can also have a positive influence on important outcomes like smoking cessation, contraception use, and weight management (Wallston & Wallston, 1978). When individuals do not believe they have control, they do not try to change.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Feeling a sense of control in one’s life is important. Something as simple as having control over the care of a houseplant has been shown to improve health and longevity. [“Sedum rubrotinctum” by JJ Harrison/Wikimedia Commons is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5.]

    Self-efficacy is closely related to control, in that people with high levels of this trait believe they can complete tasks and reach their goals. Just as feeling in control can reduce stress and improve health, higher self-efficacy can reduce stress and negative health behaviors and is associated with better health (O’Leary, 1985).

    Social Relationships

    Research has shown that the impact of social isolation on our risk for disease and death is similar in magnitude to the risk associated with smoking regularly (Holt-Lunstad et al., 2010; House et al., 1988). In fact, the importance of social relationships for our health is so significant that some scientists believe our body has developed a physiological system that encourages us to seek out our relationships, especially in times of stress (Taylor et al., 2000). Social integration is the concept used to describe the number of social roles that you have (Cohen & Wills, 1985), as well as the lack of isolation. For example, you might be a daughter, a basketball team member, a Humane Society volunteer, a coworker, and a student. Maintaining these different roles can improve your health via encouragement from those around you to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Those in your social network might also provide you with social support (e.g., when you are under stress). This support might include emotional help (e.g., a hug when you need it), tangible help (e.g., lending you money), or advice. By helping to improve health behaviors and reduce stress, social relationships can have a powerful, protective impact on health and, in some cases, might even help people with serious illnesses stay alive longer (Spiegel et al., 1989).

    Dispositions and Emotions: What’s Risky and What’s Protective?

    Negative dispositions and personality traits have been strongly tied to an array of health risks. One of the earliest negative trait-to-health connections was discovered in the 1950s by two cardiologists. They made the interesting discovery that there were common behavioral and psychological patterns among their heart patients that were not present in other patient samples. This pattern included being competitive, impatient, hostile, and time urgent. They labeled it Type A behavior. Importantly, it was found to be associated with double the risk of heart disease as compared with Type B behavior (Friedman & Rosenman, 1959). Since the 1950s, researchers have discovered that it is the hostility and competitiveness components of Type A that are especially harmful to heart health (Iribarren et al., 2000; Matthews et al., 1977; Miller et al., 1996). Hostile individuals are quick to get upset, and this angry arousal can damage the arteries of the heart. In addition, given their negative personality style, hostile people often lack a heath-protective supportive social network.

    Positive traits and states, on the other hand, are often health protective. For example, characteristics like positive emotions (e.g., feeling happy or excited) have been tied to a wide range of benefits such as increased longevity, a reduced likelihood of developing some illnesses, and better outcomes once you are diagnosed with certain diseases (e.g., heart disease, HIV) (Pressman & Cohen, 2005). Across the world, even in the most poor and underdeveloped nations, positive emotions are consistently tied to better health (Pressman et al., 2013). Positive emotions can also serve as the “antidote” to stress, protecting us against some of its damaging effects (Fredrickson, 2001; Pressman & Cohen, 2005) (see FiGURE 15.2). Similarly, looking on the bright side can also improve health. Optimism has been shown to improve coping, reduce stress, and predict better disease outcomes like recovering from a heart attack more rapidly (Kubzansky et al., 2001; Nes & Segerstrom, 2006; Scheier & Carver, 1985; Segerstrom et al., 1998).

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): One possible way that positive affect protects individuals against disease. Positive affect can reduce stress perceptions (a), thereby improving health behaviors (b) and lowering physiological stress responses (c) (e.g., decreased cardiovascular reactivity, lower stress hormones, non-suppressed immune activity). As a result, there is likely to be less incidence of disease (d, e). [“Positive Affect and Disease” by Judy Schmitt is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. Adapted from Pressman and Cohen (2005).]

    Stress Management

    About 20% of Americans report having stress, with 18- to 33-year-olds reporting the highest levels (American Psychological Association, 2012). Given that the sources of our stress are often difficult to change (e.g., personal finances, current job), a number of interventions have been designed to help reduce the aversive responses to duress. For example, relaxation activities and forms of meditation are techniques that allow individuals to reduce their stress via breathing exercises, muscle relaxation, and mental imagery. Physiological arousal from stress can also be reduced via biofeedback, a technique in which the individual is shown bodily information that is not normally available to them (e.g., heart rate), and then taught strategies to alter this signal. This type of intervention has even shown promise in reducing heart disease and hypertension risk, as well as other serious conditions (e.g., Moravec, 2008; Patel et al., 1981). But reducing stress does not have to be complicated! For example, exercise is a great stress reduction activity (Salmon, 2001) that has a myriad of health benefits.

    This page titled 15.4: Protecting Our Health is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Kate Votaw.

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