The importance of understanding the links between personality and health are being increasingly recognized within the scientific and psychological society, over the years research and theoretical advances have begun to uncover that personality can have an effect on health, whether good or bad. Illnesses can be a cause of many factors that may be biological, psychological, environmental or even sociological. Suggesting that illnesses are related to more than just biological infectious diseases such as Tuberculosis, pneumonia, influenza, etc. of which during the 1900’s were major killers within western societies. (Stroebe, 2000) Yet as medicines understanding of these diseases grew and as vaccinations and treatments were made available the major culprit for death was no longer of a purely biological nature. By the year 2000 the major killers were taking the form of cardiovascular diseases which include coronary heart disease(CHD), High blood pressure, and cancer, (American Heart Association, 1999) that have many psychological, environmental and behavioral links, and most importantly links to stress and how our body copes while experiencing it.
Selye’s three stages of the general adaptation syndrome (1976) can be directly linked to the above and have on many occasions been associated to personality and its effects on health. These developments have facilitated in the creation of ‘Health psychology,’ as researchers in this field evaluate and study the link between the mind and body, and how the environment may have an impact on these to produce illness or health. The following essay will interpret work written by professionals within the field of Health Psychology and offer an explanation of how Personality can impact health, with reference to research and theories, and to highlight personality’s role in Coronary Heart disease and cancer. The effect of stress on an individual’s physical health can have very serious consequences if the body’s response to the stress is over aroused.
The prolonged arousal of the sympathetic system and the adrenal cortical system can cause major damage to the arteries and organs, yet long term stress can have an effect on the body’s immune system, lowering its ability to fight off diseases, this particular notion has had a lot of links to the development of cancer. (Taylor, 1986) Yet the links between the ideas that stress affects health has also been linked to the individual’s personality. Ultimately the concept is that challenging environments produce stress, and that certain individuals that possess a particular personality are poor at coping with stress, this is usually associated with personality traits and certain coping skills.
Studies into the effects of ‘Hardiness’ by Kobasa, (1979); Kobasa, Maddi and Kahn, (1982) have shown that men who have had High levels of stress yet low occurrences of illness differed from those that had become ill during stressful events. The link seems logical as those that had less illnesses had felt as if they had more control and commitment in their lives while at the same time seeing certain situations such as losing a job, as a challenge instead of a setback, signifying that those individuals would be able to turn what could have been a stressful situation into their advantage. This particular study was only conducted on males, however and alternative study showed similar results when conducted on females.( Wiebe and McCallum, 1986) An alternative to theory to the Hardiness scale is The Type A personality type that has had links to CHD and other heart issues.
Physicians believe that the traits of a Type A personality tend to be, aggressiveness, impatience and often an over involvement in work. The individuals that often exhibit this type of behavior tend to be very competitive and often find it difficult to relax. (Friedman and Rosenman, 1974) In comparison with type A, Type B individuals are those that do not show the characteristics of a Type A person. They can relax and work without a feeling of urgency; they are less likely to become agitated or angry. The Biological connection between Type A people and coronary heart disease suggests that the individual’s sympathetic nervous system responds to stress in a maladaptive way.
Most people when exposed to stressors such as high demands at work, feel angry, or agitated yet not to the extent to which it could cause any long term issues, as they are not prolonged and easily returned to a normal state, however an individual with a type A personality would show a much higher increase in blood pressure and heart rate. The sympathetic nervous system on a Type A individual would be ‘Hyper-responsive’ to stressors. The theory is that all of these psychological and physiological changes damage the heart. (Manuck and Kranz, 1986) In relation to the above there have been many large scale studies that suggest that there are larger varieties of risk factors than just CHD, Such as smoking, and obesity. (Rosenman, 1975) patterns shown by research suggests that it is not necessarily the individuals traits such as high ambition and the need to work, instead the negative emotions that a Type A personality possesses such as anger are seen as the main culprits for the health problems.
Friedman and Rosenman’s Western collaborative group study was the longitudinal study of 3534 men, between the ages of 39 and 59. Each individual was medically examined and given a category of either Type A or it’s contrasting Type B, it was found that 53 per cent of the participants were Type A and the rest Type B. (Rosenman, 1964) After an 8.5 year follow up results had shown that Type A men had experienced higher numbers of CHD in comparison with Type B over the course of the study. Coinciding studies such as the Framingham Study (Haynes et al, 1978) and the British Regional Heart study (Jognston et al, 1987) looked into the link between Type A and CHD, each study showed higher numbers of CHD (both MI man Angina) among Type A men and women .