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Developing a Stress-Hardy Personality

By Dr. Gregg D. Jacobs

If you want to improve your emotional well-being, feel more energy and joie de vivre, ease stress-related symptoms and live a longer and healthier life, work on developing a sense of stress hardiness to minimize the harmful effects of stress.

The three beliefs
Stress-resistant individuals possess a kind of feeling about themselves and their lives, which has been termed “stress hardiness”. The stress-hardy personality is characterized by three beliefs:

• Control
• Commitment
• Challenge

Stress-hardy individuals have a sense of control over events in their lives, a strong commitment to something outside of themselves and an ability to view stress and change as challenges and opportunities, instead of threats.  In contrast, people who don’t handle stress well feel more powerless, threatened and debilitated by change and uncertainty. They retreat from stress, preferring stability and, as a result, are more likely to find life boring and meaningless.

Because stress-hardy people are committed to something larger than themselves, they take better advantage of social support, and are deeply involved in their work and families.  Stress-hardy people view change as normal and challenging.  They are curious about their environment and interested in new experiences—even seemingly stressful ones—which they view as integral to growth, reintegration and personal transformation.  They are also optimistic by nature.

Control stress before it controls you
But of the three components of stress hardiness, it may be that the most important is a sense of control over stress.  Studies have demonstrated that, with a sense of control people can tolerate extreme stress.  Those who feel a high sense of control rather than a belief in fate, or luck, or their own helplessness, not only cope better with stress, they do better in life and live more happily by a number of important measures.

In one study, subjects were given a series of math problems to complete, during which they were subjected to random bursts of loud noise. Half the subjects were told that they could stop the noise by pressing a button, even though, in reality, the button would do nothing. Even though none of the subjects actually pushed the button, they showed fewer physiological signs of stress because the mere suggestion that they could control stress kept them calmer.


 

Others studies have shown that when animals and people experience uncontrollable events, they learn that their actions have no effect on outcomes and they become passive and unresponsive.

This “learned helplessness” is a major risk factor for a number of illnesses.  Additionally, individuals exposed to stress that they view as uncontrollable, such as the care of a relative with a debilitating illness, have been shown to exhibit poorer immunological functioning; they are also at greater risk for developing major depression.

Sense of control benefits health
Perhaps the most striking example of the sense of control on health was found in a study involving the amount of control that elderly nursing home residents had over daily events in their life. On one floor of the home, residents were given a choice over variables such as what movies to watch, the types of eggs they could eat for breakfast, which plants to take care of, and so on. Another floor of residents was given no choice in any aspect of their daily routine. Eighteen months later, the researchers found that residents given more of a sense of control were happier, more active and fewer had died.

Belief in control over events in the environment is also associated with better health habits. If you believe you can improve your health through exercise, for instance, you are more likely to get to the gym or take that brisk walk, which will indeed improve your health.  This belief in control—called self-efficacy—is central to efforts to improve many health behaviors such as diet and nutrition, smoking, and weight loss.

You can develop a sense of stress hardiness by:

1. Telling yourself optimistic stories about events in your life and practicing the techniques from the Attitude Archives for developing optimism.
2. View your life as meaningful, problems as opportunities and the future as a challenge.
3. Develop a sense of commitment to something other than yourself.
4. View change as normal, inevitable and as a stimulating, healthy challenge, not a threat.

References

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