Monday, June 18, 2018

Venting Anger
When you feel angry beating up on a pillow or punching bag actually makes you angrier.
What should you do when you get angry?  Many people believe the best way to safely get rid of anger is by a process called catharsis, or venting your anger.  For example an angry person could work off their anger by doing things like exercising, beating on a pillow, hitting a punching bag or just screaming as loud as they could.  Although this advice is common in the popular media, does it really work at reducing anger?  To answer that question researchers from Iowa State University and Case Western University conducted an experiment.
What was the research about?
Participants in the experiment first read a newspaper article, created by the experimenters, which talked about catharsis.  Some participants read an article that said a Harvard psychologist had determined catharsis worked very well at relieving people’s anger (the Pro-catharsis article).  Other participants read an article that said the Harvard psychologist had determined catharsis did not work at relieving people’s anger (the Anti-catharsis article).  These articles were used to get participants to believe, or not believe, that catharsis worked.
Next participants wrote a short essay discussing their views on abortion and another participant in a different room (who didn’t really exist) graded their essay.  To make the participants feel angry; their essays were always returned with a handwritten comment saying, “This is one of the worst essays I have every read!”  After getting this bad feedback on their essay participants were given 2 minutes to hit a punching bag, if they wanted to, while the experimenter prepared the next part of the study.
To see how aggressive people would be, the participants played a game against another person.  The participant had to hit a button faster than their opponent did; and if they won, they could blast their opponent with a loud noise as punishment.  Some participants were told their opponent was the person who had graded their essay, and others were told the opponent was not the person who had graded their essay.  The “opponent” was actually a computer that randomly let the participant win half of the time.
Results showed that participants who thought catharsis worked, and had hit the punching bag, were actually more aggressive against their opponent in the reaction time game.  They blasted their opponent with louder noise than participants who read the Anti-catharsis article and had hit the punching bag.  Who the opponent was didn’t matter.  Even when the opponent was not the person who graded their essay, the Pro-catharsis participants who had hit the punching bag still blasted him with louder noise.
Why should it matter to me?
When we feel angry many of us are tempted to vent our anger, thinking it will help us calm down.  Unfortunately, this venting actually builds up the anger and makes our problem worse.  A better way to calm down is to get away from the situation and relax.  Later, after we have cooled down, we are better able to constructively deal with the source of our anger.
Source: Bushman, Brad J., Baumeister, Roy F. & Stack, Angela D. (1999). Catharsis, Aggression and Persuasive Influence: Self-Fulfilling or Self-Defeating Prophecies?  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 76, 367-376.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Certain stressful events cause different cardiovascular reactions in men and women.
Although many people have to deal with the same types of stressful situations in their daily lives, not everybody is affected the same way by those situations.  For instance, men seem to be more concerned with performance-oriented situations, such as work challenges and tasks involving physical fitness.  Women, however, seem to be more concerned with socially-oriented situations, such as marital conflict and physical appearance.  If men and women differ in how stressful they view certain events, their bodies may also react differently to those events.  To find out, researchers from Brown University and Ohio State University conducted an experiment.
What was the research about?
One body reaction commonly associated with stress is an increase in cardiovascular activity, such as heart rate and blood pressure.  Therefore, the researchers decided to measure participants' cardiovascular reactions to different stressful events.  To begin the experiment participants sat in a comfortable chair and listened to soft music for 10 minutes.  During this time the researchers measured the participant's heart rate, diastolic blood pressure, systolic blood pressures, and mean arterial pressure.  These measurements served as a stress-free baseline the researchers could then compare later measurements against.  After the baseline readings were taken, participants completed four different tasks.  Three of the tasks were designed to be performance-oriented and one task was designed to be appearance-oriented.  For the performance tasks, participants had to do subtraction problems in their head while being timed, trace a star pattern while only looking at its mirror image, and squeeze a handgrip for 2.5 minutes.  For the appearance-oriented task, participants had to give a four minute speech on what they liked and disliked about their body and physical appearance.  After participants finished each task, the researchers again measured their cardiovascular responses.
The results showed that men's cardiovascular system reacted more than women's during the performance-oriented tasks.  In other words, men's cardiovascular readings rose above their baseline levels during the performance-oriented tasks, whereas women's cardiovascular readings did not rise.  During the appearance-oriented tasks, however, women's cardiovascular readings rose above their baseline levels, whereas men's did not.  These results seem to suggest that men respond more to performance situations, whereas women respond more to appearance situations.

Why should it matter to me?
When men and women work together, it's important for them to realize how each gender reacts to certain types of situations.  Situations that don't seem stressful to men may be very stressful for women and vice versa.  Being sensitive to these differences can help reduce annoyance at another person's stressed out reaction to a seemingly "harmless" event and even prepare working partners to better help each other cope.
Source: Stroud, Laura R., Niaura, Raymond S., & Stoney, Catherine M. (2001). Sex differences in cardiovascular reactivity to physical appearance and performance challenges. International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 8, 240-250. 

Friday, June 8, 2018

Can “living in the moment” reduce stress?
The term “mindfulness” has its roots in the Buddhist tradition. It refers to being aware of and paying attention to what is taking place in the present. If you are like many people, you probably spend little time in a mindful state. It is hard not to be distracted by what the world is throwing at us on a constant basis. Try this – spend the next five minutes in a quiet space. Pay attention to what is going on around you, AT THE PRESENT TIME. Do not think about what you are having for dinner. Do not think about that argument you had with your spouse the other day. Do not think about how to get your kids to study more. Do not think about whether you will have enough money after retirement. It’s hard, isn’t it? With this said, there is evidence that being able to at least approach a mindful state of mind can have psychological benefits, including the reduction of stress.
What was the research about?
Kirk Brown and Richard Ryan, of the University of Rochester, conducted a formal test of the psychological benefits of mindfulness. What they found was that people who reported being “more mindful” than others also reported having positive psychological traits as high self-esteem, higher life satisfaction, more positive feelings, less anxiety, and less depression. They next tested whether inducing a mindful state can alleviate stress during an extremely stressful period – the time following cancer surgery. They trained a group of cancer patients to enter a mindful state. What they found was that indeed, patients who were trained to become more mindful did, in fact, report less stress. This suggests that being more mindful can reduce stress, even during the most stressful times of our lives.

Why should it matter to me?
The results of this study strongly support the notion that mindfulness may have powerful psychological benefits. The fact that it appears to reduce stress in cancer patients is evidence that it may have a wide range of therapeutic applications. You may be able to reduce your own level of stress, in addition to reaping the other psychological rewards of mindfulness by practicing techniques designed to induce a state of mindfulness in yourself.
Source: Brown, Kirk, W., & Ryan, Richard, M. (2003).The benefits of being present: Mindfulness and its role in psychological well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 822-848.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

How men and women cope with the same stressful event
When coping with stress, people generally choose between two basic strategies.  Some choose what’s called emotion-focused coping.  Emotion-focused coping involves doing things that help the person cope with the negative emotions caused by their stress.  People will wish the problem were gone, daydream about it turning out differently, re-interpret the problem by “looking on the bright side”, blame others for the problem or just avoid thinking about the problem at all.  Other people choose what’s called problem-focused coping.  Problem-focused coping involves doing things that actually affect the problem itself.  For example, people will think about possible solutions to the problem, gather information about it or take real action to address the problem.  How does a person’s gender influence which strategy they pick to cope with their stress?  Researchers at the University of Washington and Iowa State University explored this question by exposing male and female participants to the same stressful event.
What was the research about?
A total of 114 participants (53 women & 51 men) participated in the experiment over the course of two days.  The participants were told the experiment was trying to use personality characteristics to predict who would be an effective teacher.  Participants were instructed they would first complete some personality questionnaires today, and tomorrow they would return to give a 5-minute lecture about the pros and cons of using animals in scientific research.  They were also informed their lecture was going to be graded by several research assistants.  Immediately after learning about giving the lecture, the participant’s pulse was taken and they filled out a questionnaire measuring how stressful they thought giving the lecture would be.
            On the next day the participants returned and, before giving the lecture, they completed a questionnaire that measured the types of thoughts they were having about the lecture and their pulse was taken.  After participants gave their lecture they completed questionnaires measuring how they had coped with the event, how many other stressors they were currently experiencing and how well they thought their lecture went.
            Results showed that male and female participants had equivalent pulse rates, gave similar ratings of how stressful they thought the lecture would be and had similar thoughts immediately before the lecture.  These results indicated that males and females experienced the stressful event (the lecture) in the same way.  Even though they had similar reactions to the event, males and females did use different coping strategies to deal with the stress caused by the upcoming lecture.  Men reported using more problem-focused coping techniques than women did.  Interestingly, men and women reported using a similar degree of emotion-focused coping techniques.
Why should it matter to me?
Coping with stressful problems can be difficult and it’s important to realize and appreciate the different ways people may choose to cope with their problems.  This realization can be valuable when men and women must work together to cope with problems, such as a family problem or a problem affecting a group at work.
Source: Ptacek, J. T.; Smith, Ronald E. & Dodge, Kenneth L. (1994). Gender Differences in Coping with Stress: When Stressor & Appraisals Do Not Differ. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin. v. 20, pp. 421-430.

Monday, May 21, 2018

When helping people cope with their stress, don’t be too obvious about it.
When a person we care about is trying to cope with a stressful event in their life, we obviously want to help them cope as much as possible.  Unfortunately our attempts to help may actually be no help at all.  Researchers have found that people, who report receiving help coping with a stressful event, only cope as well or even worse than people who don’t report receiving any help.  This may happen because receiving help draws our attention to our problem, is a blow to our self-esteem or the “help” is just not that good and makes the problem worse.  Researchers have also found, however, that people who just believe they have access to social support if they should need it, cope better than those who don’t think they have sources of social support.  In other words, in times of stress, if we think we have sources of social support we cope well.  Yet if we actually receive help from those sources of social support we don’t cope as well.  These two findings seem contradictory, so a group of researchers from New York University and Harvard Medical School conducted an experiment to try and reconcile these inconsistent findings.
What was the research about?
The researchers recruited 68 couples in which one person was preparing to take the New York State Bar Examination.  The Bar Examination is a 2-day test that all aspiring lawyers must pass before they can practice law and is generally a very stressful event.  For each of the 32 days leading up to the Bar Exam, both members of each couple individually completed a short diary form.  In the diary form, the person about to take the Bar Exam (the examinee) indicated their feelings of anxiety and depression, as well as whether they had received social support from their partner that day.  The partner indicated whether he or she had given the examinee social support that day.
Results showed that during the time of highest stress (the week before the exam), feelings of anxiety and depression actually increased on days when the examinee reported receiving social support from their partner.  This was true whether or not the partner had actually provided any social support that day.  On the other hand, anxiety and depression decreased on days when the partner provided social support but the examinee did not report receiving social support.  In other words, on days when the person under stress was given social support but just didn’t realize it, they felt better.  How could a person receive support and not realize it?  One example is when your partner does a household chore without even telling you.  The stress associated with the chore is gone but you don’t even realize your partner helped you out.  These results show that receiving social support does help people cope with stress, but only when their attention is not drawn to the fact they are getting help from another person.
Why should it matter to me?
It’s very common for people to want to help others cope with a stressful event.  If we aren’t careful how we approach helping the other person, however, we may just cause them more stress.  If we help them in a very obvious way this may just make the person feel worse by highlighting their vulnerability to stress.  Instead, we should try to help them in ways that don’t draw their attention to their stress.  Realizing how to best help a person cope is also important in times when we end up causing them more stress.  By understanding which type of help is actually beneficial, we can avoid becoming confused or angry if a person reacts negatively to receiving our “help”.
Source: Bolger, Niall; Zuckerman, Adam & Kessler, Ronald C. (2000). Invisible Support and Adjustment to Stress. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology. 79, 953-961. 

Monday, May 14, 2018

Workaholics and their well-being
As long as you enjoy your work, being a workaholic may not be bad for your emotional and physical health.
Do you know someone who works every chance they get, feels driven to keep working hard after others have stopped and even misses their work when on vacation?  These are the characteristics of a “workaholic”.  There are a wide variety of opinions about workaholism.  Some people view workaholics positively because they believe workaholism leads to increased productivity.  Others, however, view workaholics negatively because they believe workaholism leads to unhappiness, health problems and stress for co-workers.  Which view is more accurate?  To help answer that question a researcher from the school of business at York University conducted a questionnaire study.
What was the research about?
A total of 530 MBA graduates, who had all graduated some time prior to 1996, completed a mailed questionnaire.  The questionnaire asked respondents to report how involved with work they were, how driven they felt to work hard, how much they enjoyed work, their psychological well-being, any psychosomatic symptoms experienced in the past year (e.g., headaches), their lifestyle behaviors (e.g., how often they exercised) and emotional well-being.
Respondents who reported being highly involved with their work and very driven to work hard were classified as workaholics.  Results showed that only workaholics who didn’t enjoy their work reported poorer psychological well-being, more psychosomatic symptoms, less healthy lifestyle behaviors and poorer emotional well-being than non-workaholics.  Workaholics who did enjoy their work were just as psychologically and emotionally well as the non-workaholics.  Therefore, how much a person enjoys their work, instead of how hard they work, seems to be the best predictor of their psychological and emotional well-being.
Why should it matter to me?
When we think someone is a workaholic we may get a negative impression of that person because we think they are a slave to their job and suffer the consequences.  This impression may be completely inaccurate.  Some workaholics may work so much just because they enjoy their job a lot, and this doesn’t appear to be such a bad thing, at least as far as their psychological and emotional health is concerned.
One important point to keep in mind, however, is the results of this study are only correlational and don’t necessarily mean that enjoying work causes that person to experience better psychological and emotional well-being.  An alternative conclusion could be the reverse; that having better psychological and emotional well-being causes the person to enjoy their work more.  More research needs to be done before these two explanations are sorted out, but this study does show there is an important relationship between work enjoyment and a person’s well-being.
Source: Burke, Ronald J. (2000). Workaholism in Organizations: Psychological and Physical Well-Being Consequences. Stress Medicine. 16, 11-16.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Stress and Smoking
Reducing feelings of stress may be a reason teenagers smoke.
People commonly report they smoke because it reduces their feelings of stress, and research shows that smokers tend to report higher levels of overall stress in their lives than non-smokers do.  People who stop smoking also experience increased feelings of stress, and this stress makes quitting for good less likely.  All of this research relating smoking to stress, however, has only examined adult smokers.  Therefore, a pair of researchers from Australia decided to study the relationship between stress and smoking in teenagers.
What was the research about?
A sample of 2625 adolescents, obtained from various Australian high schools, was given questionnaires to complete.   The questionnaires measured how much stress the respondent experienced from a variety of sources, such as attending school, family conflict and parental control, as well as how much the respondent smoked.
Results showed that adolescents who smoked regularly reported higher levels of overall stress compared to non-smokers.  Interestingly, girls reported experiencing greater levels of stress associated with most of the sources than boys did.  Stress associated with attending school, family conflict and parental control was most related to smoking for girls.  These sources of stress distinguished well between girls who smoked and didn’t smoke.  Stress associated with attending school was most likely to distinguish between boys who smoked and didn’t smoke.  Thus stress from school, family and parental control may be what leads a teenager to smoke.  These results are correlational, however, so it’s not clear whether these sources of stress actually cause a teenager to smoke or not.
Why should it matter to me?
Clearly stress is an important factor in teen smoking.  Whether or not stress causes a teen to smoke is not certain; however, teens that begin to smoke may be more likely to continue because smoking does seem to help alleviate stress.   Smoking may also help teens to better fit in with other peers.  Adolescence is a time when identity is very important; therefore socially smoking may be a way for teens to help establish their peer group.  By realizing that teen smoking is at least associated with stress, parents can take steps to help their kids avoid smoking.  A good start is to be aware of the stress your child experiences and help him or her cope with that stress.  Of course parents must be careful when doing this because their efforts to help may be interpreted by the child as an attempt to control their behavior.
Source: Byrne, D. G. & Mazanov, J. (1999). Sources of Adolescent Stress, Smoking, and the Use of Other Drugs. Stress Medicine, 15, 215-227.