Stress can affect health; we already know that. However, each one of us in our own unique way reacts to stress differently, depending on cognition and personality, and both of these can affect our health. So how do cognitive factors and personality differences affect the experience of stress? We look at the different types of each and their effects.
Breaking it down
As a refresher, stress is the body’s reaction to any kind of demand. It may be good (eustress), or a vast majority of the time, bad (distress). Cognitive factors are characteristics of an individual determining his/her ability to process and learn information. Examples include memory, reasoning, knowledge, and comprehension. Personality refers to the collection of unique emotional qualities and behaviours in an individual. Both are necessary for determining how a person assesses a situation as stressful and how he/she reacts to it.
Cognitive factors in stress
Richard S. Lazarus developed his cognitive view of stress called the Cognitive-Mediational Theory of Emotions. It states that the severity of a stressor is mainly determined by how a person thinks about and evaluates the stressor. According to the eminent psychologist, there exists a two-step process in assessing the stressor’s degree of threat/harm and how one should react to it.
Primary appraisal involves estimating the stressor’s severity and classifying it as a threat (something harmful in the future), a challenge (something to be faced and conquered), or a harm/loss that has already happened.
If the stressor is perceived to be a threat, this will lead to increased stress reactions. The arising negative emotions will then inhibit the person’s ability to handle it properly. On the other hand, if the stressor is seen as a challenge, it is possible to plan to meet that challenge, which is a less stressful and more positive approach. This makes coping with it more likely to be successful.
For example, a student who has not memorized his lines and actions will find the school play in which he will perform to be a threat. He will most probably not do anything to improve his position. Meanwhile, a student who has rehearsed and memorized his lines, cues, and actions in the same play will deem it a challenge. He sees it as a chance to display the fruits of his labour.
After perceiving the stressor as a threat, we move on to secondary appraisal. This involves estimating the resources available for coping with the stressor. Such may include concrete resources like supplies, money, or people; and abstract resources like time, energy, information, social support, or skill.
Despite assessing the stressor as a threat, the degree of stress will be significantly lower if resources are perceived as abundant or adequate than if resources are lacking or nonexistent. For instance, completing a delicate operation would amount to less stress for a veteran doctor than to a surgeon fresh out of college due to a difference in skill.
A landlady warns a tenant that she would evict him were he to fail to pay his rent within three days. The primary appraisal may go like this: “I’ll be kicked out, and I have nowhere else to go! This is bad!” (This is a threat!) The secondary appraisal will then go like this: “My paycheck isn’t until next week, and I’m penniless right now!” (I lack resources to deal with this!)
Now, in the same circumstances, let’s compare that person’s reaction to another tenant’s. “I’ll be kicked out, but that’s not so bad. I know there are other landlords nearby.” (This is a challenge!) He then copes with it, “I can try making a profit out of my skills to pay the rent. Even if I fail, I can stay in a stranger’s house until I get my next paycheck.” (I have the resources for this!) Now, who is more likely to be more stressful and face health problems as a consequence?
Does that mean we classify a stressor as a threat based on secondary appraisal (wondering if we can handle this situation)? No. Again this depends on the person’s perception of the stressor. He/She at first may feel like it is a threat, but during secondary appraisal may find adequate coping resources, physically or mentally.
Personality factors in stress
How one cognitively assesses a stressor depends on one’s personality. For instance, highly anxious or aggressive people tend to create more stress for themselves than what may exist in the actual stressor. In fact, people who display positive emotions and relationships tend to live longer. This means that our personality dictates how much stress we take in, which would affect our health, which would determine our longevity.
Medical doctors Meyer Friedman and Ray Roseman devised the Type A and Type B personality theory in the 1950s. The research on the link between coronary heart disease and personality had a significant effect on health psychology as researchers continue to study mental and physical health relationships.
Type A people are workaholics: they tend to be competitive, irritable, ambitious perfectionists who despise wasting time. There is a never-ending sense of pressure and a desire to multitask beyond human capability. Often successful and just as often unsatisfied, they always seem to want to go faster and do more. They fuss over small things and do not tolerate even the slightest mistakes or distractions. A typical Type A struggles to relax and do nothing. He/She often brings his/her work with him/her; be it at the beach, in the car ride home, at the lunch table, or even to bed!
Type B people are not that competitive, tend to be easygoing and cool-tempered and exhibit great self-control. Preferring to take life at a slow and relaxed pace, they do not suffer from a bad temper or anxiety, and thus are calm, laid-back, and patient. This, however, means that they procrastinate a lot. They are still subject to stress, but during which are highly productive. They plan things in advance and do not complain much when faced with problems. A typical Type B adapts well to his/her situation, is fun-loving and usually does not have OCD.
The bottom line is, those labelled as type A personality are at higher risk of CHD than those with type B personality. Not even children are exempt from the link between hostility and heart disease.
Later, researchers, Temoshok and Dreher identified a third personality type associated with a higher incidence of cancer. Type C people tend to be very pleasant and cool-headed but find it difficult to express, particularly negative, emotions. They prefer to keep their anger welled up inside and often experience despair over a loss. These people are often lonely. Similar as to how the stress of hostility can endanger Type A people’s cardiovascular systems, the bottled-up negative emotions may increase harm stress hormone levels, weaken the immune system, and impede recovery.
Yet again there is another personality type, coined by psychologist Suzanne Kobasa in 1979. She calls it the ‘hardy’ personality. These are Type A people who work hard, but feed on stress rather than let it feed on them. Hardy people have these characteristics:
- They have a deep sense of commitment to their values, beliefs, sense of identity, work, and family.
- They feel they are in control of their situations.
- Their primary appraisal is different. When things go wrong, they see it not as a threat, but always as a challenge. These are the “three C’s of hardiness.”
When life gives you lemons,
- Type A people ferociously throw them back, having a cardiac arrest in the process.
- Type B people pick up the lemons and make lemonade.
- Type C people brood silently, fuming at the mess.
- Type H people gather the lemons, make lemonade, sell it, turn it into a business, and make millions.
Facing a stressor today? Remember, you can either let it conquer you, ride on its back, say nothing, or make it your employee. Your personality dictates your actions.
The Common Behavioral Traits of a Type B Personality. Retrieved from www.buzzle.com.
Claudette, A. (2011). Introduction to Psychology, 1st ed. Pearson Education South Asia Pte Ltd.
Eysenck, H.J. (1990). Type A Behavior and Coronary Heart Disease: The Third Stage. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality.
Temoshok, L. & Dreher, H. (1992). The Type C Connection: The Behavioral Links to Cancer and Your Health. Radom House, New York.