Monday, March 19, 2018

Pessimism and your health
Explaining bad events in a pessimistic way may jeopardize your health.
Everybody has something bad happen to them at some point.  People differ, however, in how they explain why the bad event happened.  Some people have a pessimistic style of explaining why bad things happen to them, whereas others have an optimistic style of explaining bad events.  Pessimists tend to explain bad events using internal (it's my fault), stable (it's going to last forever) and global (it's going to affect every aspect of my life) explanations.  Optimists, on the other hand, explain bad events using external (it's not my fault), unstable (it won't last long) and local (it's only this one thing) explanations.  For example, after failing a test a pessimist may think, "I failed the test because I'm stupid (internal cause).  I'm going to keep failing my upcoming tests in this class (stable).  My grades will go down, I'll never graduate, I'll never get a good job and all my friends will hate me (global)."  The optimist thinks, "I failed the test because the teacher's lectures were very confusing (external cause).  I'll do better on the next test (unstable).  After all it's just this one test, which is only 15% of my class grade, and I'm still doing well in my other classes (local)."  Research has shown that a pessimistic way of explaining bad events is linked to stress and depression.  Could a pessimistic outlook on life also make a person more susceptible to illness?  To answer that question researchers from the University of Missouri and the University of Michigan conducted a study.
What was the research about?
The study followed 198 students over a 9-week time period.  During the first week all participants completed a questionnaire indicating how stressful they felt their life was at that time.  During the second week all participants completed a questionnaire that measured how they tended to explain hypothetical bad events.  The researchers used this questionnaire to classify participants as having either a pessimistic or optimistic way of explaining bad events.  During every week of the study participants also completed a questionnaire that measured how often they had felt ill, missed class because of illness and visited a doctor because of illness.  In addition participants reported how much they had been bothered by various health problems such as colds, headaches and extreme tiredness.
Results indicated that participants who had a pessimistic style of explaining bad events showed a positive relationship between their level of stress and how many illness symptoms they reported.  In other words, the more stress the pessimists were under, the more they experienced illness symptoms.  Participants with an optimistic style of explaining bad events, however, showed no relationship between stress and illness symptoms.  Therefore, an optimistic style of explaining bad events seems to help protect a person from getting ill while under increased stress.
Why should it matter to me?
Although people often can't completely prevent bad things from happening to them, they can control how they deal with those events.  Of course people should acknowledge their role in bad outcomes and learn from their mistakes, however, there is no need to beat oneself up over bad events.  Explaining events in a way that blows them out of proportion only enhances stress and may increase your odds of contracting an illness.  Instead try to realize the limits of a bad event and see the positive side of things.  Using this strategy will not only limit your stress, it may also help maintain your health.
Source: Jackson, Benita, Sellers, Robert, M., and Peterson, Christopher (2002). Pessimistic explanatory style moderates the effect of stress on physical illness. Personality and Individual Differences, 32, 567-573.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Spirituality as a Coping Method
Feelings of spirituality may help you effectively cope with stress.
The sudden and terrible nature of last year's terrorist attack left many people searching for ways to explain the event and cope with it.  Some intuitively turn to their religion as a means of coping.  Researchers, however, have not consistently found religion to be an effective coping mechanism.  One reason may be that "religion" is a somewhat vague concept that researchers have a hard time measuring.  For instance, should people who believe in God but don't belong to any specific religious group be considered "religious"?  Instead of religion itself, perhaps some aspect of being religious would help people cope with their stress better.  To find out, researchers from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine and University of Rochester Medical Center examined how people's specific feelings of spirituality affected their ability to cope with stress.
What was the research about?
One hundred and thirteen university students (73 men and 40 women) took part in the study.  The participants completed two sets of questionnaires over the course of the study.  The first set of questionnaires measured each participant's level of stress, feelings of spirituality, methods of coping with stress (other than spirituality), current positive and negative feelings, and any physical symptoms experienced during the past month.  One month later participants again indicated their level of stress, current positive and negative feelings and any physical symptoms experienced during the past month.
Study results indicated that participants with stronger feelings of spirituality experienced fewer negative feelings and fewer physical symptoms during times of high stress.  Thus, spirituality seems to have buffered or protected participants from stress-induced negative feelings and physical symptoms.  It is important to keep in mind these buffering effects of spirituality were found even after participants' other methods of coping were taken into account.  In other words, spirituality helped participants cope in addition to their other coping methods.
Why should it matter to me?
Based on this study, feelings of spirituality seem to help people cope by protecting them from negative feelings and physical symptoms associated with stress.  Therefore, when your life becomes stressful, you can have faith in using your faith to cope.
Source: Kim, Youngmee, & Seidlitz, Larry (2002). Spirituality moderates the effect of stress on emotional and physical adjustment. Personality and Individual Differences, 32, 1377-1390.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Quitting Smoking and Stress

Quitting smoking may lower your feelings of stress.

Smoking is a serious health concern because it is the single largest cause of premature death and disability in the United States.  Despite the health risks associated with smoking, many people smoke as a way of coping with stress.  When these smokers attempt to quit, they often experience a short-term increase in their stress level and resume smoking.  On the one hand, this relationship between quitting and stress seems to suggest that people who successfully quit smoking will continue to experience higher levels of stress as time goes on.  On the other hand, successful quitters may actually lower their stress level because they no longer have the stigma associated with smoking or suffer stressful cravings between cigarettes.  To explore how quitting smoking affected a person's stress level, researchers from Arizona State University and Indiana University conducted a study.

What was the research about?

The study followed a group of 3,077 participants over a six-year time period between 1993 and 1999.  In 1993 and 1999 participants completed a series of questionnaires that measured the degree of stress they experienced in the past year, how positive and negative their mood had been in the past month, and their beliefs about how smoking affected their stress level and their health.

To analyze the results, the researchers first divided participants into four different groups: stable nonsmokers; participants who had never smoked or only tried smoking once or twice, successful quitters; participants who were regular cigarette smokers in 1993 but had quit by 1999, relapsers; participants who were ex-smokers in 1993 but had returned to regular cigarette smoking in 1999, and stable smokers; participants who smoked at least monthly in 1993 and 1999.

The results showed that successful quitters actually decreased their stress levels over time.  In fact, in 1999 the successful quitters' stress levels were identical to those of the stable nonsmokers.  Another important finding was that participants who tried to quit and failed (the relapsers) did not increase their stress levels over time, and had identical stress levels as stable smokers in 1999.  This is an important result because it shows that trying to quit and failing does not endanger a smoker by increasing his or her stress level.

Why should it matter to me?

Quitting smoking is a very difficult thing to do, so people need all the encouragement they can get.  In fact many people fail a number of times before they successfully quit smoking.  This study provides evidence, however, that repeatedly trying to quit is worth the effort because successful quitters lowered their stress levels.  Even more important is that those who failed to quit did not suffer from more stress, which provides encouragement to keep trying in the face of adversity.  Of course it is important to keep in mind that this study was correlational, meaning the researchers only found a relationship between how much people smoked and their stress.  Other factors besides smoking may also have affected the results; however, these results do provide some hope for those who continue to struggle with their habit.

Source: Chassin, Laurie, Presson, Clark C., Sherman, Steven J., & Kim, Kyung (2002). Long term psychological sequelae of smoking cessation and relapse. Health Psychology, 21, 438-443.