Individual differences in stress
Individual differences in the way people perceive and react to stressors are related to personality factors. Researchers have referred to personality types, general characterisations, where people share the same traits. Type A Behaviour Pattern (TABP) was suggested by Friedman & Rosenman (1959) when investigating non-physiological factors involved in coronary heart disease (CHD). TABP is characterised by time urgency, excessive competitiveness and hostility and correlates with greater vulnerability to CHD and high blood pressure. Recent research suggests hostility, characterised by non-specific dislike of others, the tendency to see the worst in others, anger, envy and a lack of compassion, is the best predictor of CHD. Type B is a healthy personality type characterised by non-competitiveness, self-confidence and relaxation and is not associated with stress-related illness. Type C relates to vulnerability to cancer, with individuals having difficulties expressing emotions and tending to suppress or inhibit negative emotions, displaying instead ’pathological niceness’, conflict avoidance and over compliance. Hardiness is characterised by control (individuals perceive themselves as having mastery over what they’re doing), commitment (individuals have a sense of purpose in what they’re doing) and challenge (individuals see stressors as enjoyable targets to reach) and is associated with low vulnerability to stress-related disorders.
Fig 14.4 What some people see as stressful, those with a hardy personality perceive as a challenge to be mastered
Friedman & Rosenman (1974) performed a longitudinal study over a 12-year period, assessing the personality types of more than 3,500 healthy, middle aged males. The participants answered questions relating to impatience, motivation towards success, competitiveness, emotions while under pressure and frustration at having their goals hindered. High scorers were categorised as Type A personality types, while low scorers were categorised as Type B personality types. Over twice as many Type A as Type B personalities developed cardiovascular disorders, which indicates that personality characteristics are linked to degrees of vulnerability to developing stress-related illnesses. It was also concluded that psychological factors can have physical effects, by the destructive physical effects of stressors being mediated via psychological personality factors, indicating that stressors are not destructive in themselves, but rather that it is how individuals perceive and respond to them that has a negative potential for health.
• Morris et al. (1981) found Type C women suppress emotions when stressed and are more vulnerable to developing cancer, due to emotional suppression leading to a weakening of the immune system and an increased risk of cancer.
• Temoshok (1987) found Type C personalities were cancer prone, with such individuals having difficulty expressing emotion and suppressed emotions, especially negative emotions like anger. This was supported by Weinman (1995), who found that such personality characteristics influenced the progression of cancer and a patient’s survival time.
• Sarafino (1990) found that people who undertook hardiness training developed lower blood pressure and felt less stressed, suggesting hardiness reduces the negative effects of stress and can be taught to people as a stress management technique.
• Westman (2009) gave 326 Israeli Defence Force officer cadets a stress questionnaire at the start and finish of a training course and found that those displaying characteristics of hardiness experienced less perceived stress, supporting the idea that hardy personality type inoculates individuals against stress-related illnesses.
It may be considered unethical to perform research on Type C women suffering from cancer, as the additional stress of being studied could further negatively impact on health. However, through such research a greater understanding might be reached, leading to the formation of effective strategies that lessen the chances of Type C women developing cancer.
Research into personality types and stress have led to an understanding that important differences exist in people’s vulnerability to stress, which are dependent upon personality characteristics.
Ragland & Brand (1988) found that 15 per cent of Friedman and Rosenman’s original sample had died of CHD, with age, high blood pressure and smoking proving to be significant factors, but little evidence of Type A personality being a risk factor. This suggests the original conclusions are unsupported.
There is no evidence that people divide easily into separate personality types. Individuals may have elements of several personality types. Indeed labelling people could lead to self-fulfilling prophecies, where individuals adopt the characteristics ascribed to the label put upon them.
Funk (1992) believes a low hardiness score just means that a person is negative and it is this that results in the debilitating effects of stress.
Research suggests that the components comprising hardiness, namely control, commitment and challenge, are learnable and therefore teaching individuals to develop these components helps to form an effective stress-management technique that lowers the risk of developing stress-related disorders.