Do you feel in control of your life? Do you see change as challenge rather than a threat? Are you resilient, hardy and tough? In short, a survivor? If you doubt it, read the exciting results of an eight year research study to find out how to stay on top of whatever challenges life hurls at you!
What does it take to survive?
Only the strong survive so it's been said and few would dispute. But what does it take to be strong? A heart that won't quit? A long lineage of "die hard"? A strong constitution?
Survivors share three specific personality traits.
Certainly, those factors can help. But in these days of relentless emotional and psychological pressures – when stress is blamed for every malady from chronic depression to cancer, ulcers to heart disease, these emerge some new strength factors. According to studies at the University of Chicago by psychologist Suzanne Ouellette Kobasa and associates, survivors share three specific personality traits that appear to afford them a high degree of stress resistance: they are committed to what they do; they feel in control of their lives; and they see change as a challenge rather than a threat.
"It helps explain why on executive gets severe headaches or plan in his chest, while his office neighbor whether the same pressures in perfect health," Dr Kobasa says.
What follows is an account of Dr Kobassa's remarkable new research, what prompted it and what it means to you.
The fatalist's view of stress dates from the 1950's, when many researchers began to look for links between it and illness. For two decades, they explored and pessimistic notion that the more frequent and serious the stress in your life, the greater your chance of getting sick.
In one typical study, researchers interviewed a group of hospital patients, in treatment for everything from depression to heart attack, and asked them about stress experiences in the past three years. These hospitalized people had, it turned out, been under more stress than a comparable group of healthy people.
How many stressful events have you experienced in the last six months?
In another, better designed study, medical researchers gave people a questionnaire to fill out while they were still healthy. They asked about stressful events in the previous six months, and then waited to see whether those who'd had a difficult half year would develop more symptoms.
They did. People who scored in the upper third of the stress scale had nearly 90 percent more illness in the first month of the follow up period then did those scoring in lowest third of the scale. And the high stress group stayed physically sicker over the next five months of the study.
Any major change from marriage to divorce can be stressful
These two studies and the many others like them used a simple way of thinking about and measuring stress. Medical researchers Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe developed a popular scale, which you may have seen, that was a checklist of stressful events. They appreciated the tricky points that any major change can be stressful. Negative events like "serious illness of a family member" and "trouble with boss" were high on the list, but so were some positive life changing events, like marriage. You might want to take the Holmes-Rahe test to find out how much pressure you are under. But remember that the score does not reflect how you deal stress, it only shows how much you have to deal with. And we now know that the way you handle these events dramatically affects your chances of staying healthy.
Hundreds of similar studies had followed Holmes and Rahe. And millions of people who work and live under research got boiled down to a memorable message. Women's magazines in the US ran headlines like "stress cause illness!" if you want to stay physically and mentally healthy, the articles said, avoid stressful events.
But such simplistic advice is possible to follow. Even if stressful events are dangerous, many like the death of a loved one are impossible to avoid. Moreover, any warning to avoid all stressful events is a prescription for staying away from opportunities as well as trouble. Since any change can be stressful, a person who wanted to be completely free of stress would never marry, have a child, take a new job or move.
Live without change or challenge can become boring
The notion is that all stress makes you sick also ignores a lot of what we know about people. It assumes we are all vulnerable and passive in the face of adversity. But what about human resilience, initiative and creativity? Many come through period of stress with more physical and mental vigor than they had before. We also know that a long time without change or challenge can lead to boredom and physical and mental strain.
Dr Kobasa becomes interested in people who stay healthy under stress. She and her colleagues decided to look first at high powered business executives, widely viewed as the walking wounded of the stress war. They found a group of telephone executives whose life experiences, on the standard scale, would have put them at high risk of illness but who were still in good health. So they asked the question: what was special about these executives?
How does stress damage the body?
The first question, really, as how doe stress damage the body? The prevailing theory, developed by Dr Hans Selye, is that stress hurts you by sounding the alarm to mobilize for fight or flight. When you feel you are in danger, your heart rate speeds up, the fats, cholesterol and sugar in your bloodstream increase, your stomach secretes more acid, your immune system slow down. All of these changes are a colossal strain. And the strain is greatest if the stresses you face are numerous, severe and persistent.
Over time, the strain leads to symptoms like gastrointestinal distress, high blood cholesterol, insomnia and low back pain. It also leaves you vulnerable to disease agents. Depending upon their biological makeup and exposure, one person may eventually develop heart disease, another peptic ulcer, and a third a severe depression.
Is it possible to cope with stress without becoming anxious?
Kobasa thought some people might be able to handle stress without becoming anxious and aroused in the first place and without starting the spiral that leads to illness. So she checked out three major personality traits that seemed most like to help:
- Commitment to self, work, family and other important values.
- A sense of personal control over one's life.
- The ability to see change in one's life as a challenge to master.
Hardy people see change as an opportunity
The researches saw these "Cs", commitment, control and challenge as the ingredients of what we called psychological hardiness. Hardy people should be able to face self determination, and the eagerness of seeing change as opportunity. In contrast, a less hardy person could feel alienated, threatened or helpless in the face of any major challenge to the status quo.
These had an ideal chance to put this hypothesis to the test. They studied executives in an operating company of one of the world's largest corporation, AT&T as it moved into some of the biggest changes of its hundred year history.
Dr Kobasa followed AT&T executives for eight years
With the support of Illinois Bell's medical director, Dr Robert Hilker, they recruited hundred of middle and upper level executives. As they followed these people over the next eight years, they saw how they handled various work and home pressures including the AT&T divestiture, one of the biggest corporate earthquakes ever. As they say who stayed healthy and who got sick, the importance of being hardy was clear from the beginning.
Nearly 700 executives filled out two questionnaires: a version of the Holmes – Rahe stress inventory modified to include the specific stresses of Illinois Bell, and a checklist of symptoms and illness. Some did report that they'd been under unusual stress and had taken ill. But an equal number had stayed healthy under stress. And some had fallen and even though nothing unusual had been happening in their lives.
100 stayed healthy; 100 got sick
Kobasa took 200 executives who had scored high on stress scale, 100 who stayed healthy under stress, and 100 who got sick. The she tried to see what made the difference between them. She asked them about their jobs, age, educational background, income and personality questions designed to measure hardiness.
When the analysis was done, it turned out that the healthy executives were not you're, wealthier, higher on the career ladder or better educated than their one difference clearly counted: they were hardier.
The stressed but healthy executives were more committed, felt in control
The stressed but healthy executives were more committed, felt more in control, and had bigger appetites for challenge. In fact, some indicators the healthy executives showed as twice as much hardiness.
These personality traits were their most potent protection against stress.
To strengthen the result, the researchers retested the executives twice in the next two years. They wanted to make sure that people stayed healthy because they were hardy, that they had not simply felt hardy on the first test because they had come trough recent stresses unscathed. But the connection held up over time. When hardy executives came under serious stress, they were only half as like to get sick as less hardy people with the same stress level.
Three paths to hardiness
In working with groups of executives, psychologists have found three techniques help them become happier, healthier and hardier. Thought the techniques may work best in a group, you can try them on your own.
Focusing: A techniques developed by psychologist Eugene Gendline, focusing is a way of recognizing signals from the body that something is wrong. Many executives are so used to pressure in the temples, neck tightness, or stomach knots that they stop noticing they have these problems, and that they worsen under stress. Experts have found that it helps them to take strain inventory once a day; to check out where things are not feeling quite right. Then they mentally review the situations that might stressful. The focusing increasing their sense of control over stress and puts them psychologically in a better position to change. And it could do the same for you.
Reconstruction of stressful situation: Think about a recent episode of distress, then write down three ways it could have gone better and three ways it could have gone worse. If you have trouble thinking of what you could have done differently, focus on someone you know who handles stress well and what he or she would have done. It's important to realize that you can think of ways to cope better.
Compensating through self improvement: sometimes you come face to face with stress like illness or impending divorce, that you cannot avoid. It's important to distinguish between what you can and cannot control. But when life feels out of control, you can regain your grip by taking on a new challenge. Choosing a new task to master, like earning how to swim can reassure you that you still can cope.
Hardiness protects all kinds of people from stress
Though the telephone executives were a homogeneous lot, mostly male, middle class, middle aged, married and Protestant, Kobasa and colleagues have since found that hardiness protects all kinds of people from stress:
"We have found it, for example, in a continuing study of women. A few years ago, we distributed hardiness questionnaires to hundred of women in their gynecologist's offices. We have found that those who were more helpless than hardy have developed more illness, both mental and physical "
They have also seen the hardiness effect in lawyers. Two large groups of general practice lawyers from the US and Canada completed questionnaires like those given to the telephone executives. If anything, a hardy personality type protected the lawyers even more than it had the executives.
Other groups that demonstrated the stress buffering power of character included men and women at the craft level with the Telephone Company (eg foremen and operator supervisors), US Arm officers and college students.
Social support and exercise can also help fight stress
Important as hardiness is, it's not the only way people fight stress. Social support, exercise and a strong constitution can all help. But hardiness, or a lack of it, can change the way people use these other resources.
Regular exercise is a good anti stress tool. Under high stress, the researchers found executives who worked out stay healthier than those who don't. Those who are hardy personalities and exercisers are healthier than those who are only one or the other.
Besides handling conflict better, hardy people also accept support from their families and co workers and user the support well.
Learning to be a survivor
Hardiness is clearly a good thing. But all these studies left one crucial question unanswered. Can you actually learn to be hardy? Or is this aspect of personality fixed early in life?
Hardiness can be developed through self reflection
"I think it's possible to become hardier: more committed, in control, and open to challenge. The change can come through self reflection. Or, as we learning, through teaching."
People who worked at becoming hardy experienced a drop in blood pressure
Dr Kabasa and her colleagues took 16 executives from Illinois Bell, men under high stress and starting to show such signs of strain as psychological problems and high blood pressure. Half the men participated in weekly group meetings, led by Sal Maddi, where they studied techniques designed to make them hardier. After eight weeks, they scored higher on the hardiness scale and had less psychological distress than before. Even more striking, their blood pressure, a clear measure of health, dropped. Three moths later, the benefits still held. The other 8 men who served as controls, they just kept a stress journal and met only at the beginning and end of the eight week period showed no such changes.
Anyone can learn how to be hardy instead of helpless
Techniques like these give you an important tool for improving health. The key will not be to make your life stress free; that's impossible. But it may be possible for anyone to defuse stress by learning to be hardy instead of helpless.