Personality Influences Healthby Shaheen E Lakhan, MD, PhD, MEd, MS, FAAN | March 20, 2006
Ancient Asian medicine has long linked emotions and intention to health, however, Western medicine has been less receptive to devising a relationship. Recent lines of psychological studies demonstrate that the way people think, act, and feel about certain situations, events, and ideas greatly influence health behaviors and are represented in the biopsychosocial model of health and illness.
The latest trend in personality psychology has been “positive” psychology. In general, certain personality factors are known to lead to good and bad health (see table below). Optimism, extraversion, conscientiousness, and an internal locus of control have lead to healthy behaviors. Whereas, Type A personality, pessimism, external locus of control, and hostility have been associated with a unhealthy behaviors. However, these associations are by far not discrete, for often traditionally negative health personalities have progressed in areas of survival, test taking, and sports. For instance, individuals with Type A personality have a greater drive for success and thereby can focus their attention on the task at hand instead of secondary factors and distractions.
Personality factors relate to health by five main links:
1. Personality may influence stress perception.
2. Personality may affect coping mechanism options and effectiveness.
3. Personality may influence the amount of social support and social relationships.
4. Personality may affect individual’s health habits, preventing steps to modify behavior, and adherence to medical regimes.
5. Personality may shape personal accounts of symptoms and pain and the expression of such symptoms to others (i.e. friends, family, medical professionals).
Personality Factors that Lead to Healthy Behaviors
Optimism – There are two lines of categorizing optimism: 1) The very expectation that good things will occur and bad things will not; and 2) Describing bad events as the result of external, unstable, and specific causes.
Individuals with optimistic thinking and high self-esteem leads to fewer infections (Peterson & Seligman, 1987), quicker post-operative recovery (Scheier et al., 1989), decreased risk of post-partum depression, and, most importantly, a longer life by way of decreased morbidity due to cancer and cardiovascular illness (Peterson et al., 1998).
Extraversion – Outgoing and social individuals have high levels of energy, often assume leadership roles, and seek challenges. Spiro et al. (1990) found that self-reported extraverts had fewer physiological and physical symptoms.
Internal Locus of Control – The perception of one’s control plays a significant role in mood and healthy behavior. Individuals with an internal locus of control perceive an internalized and self-borne and causes control mechanism. Greater perceptions of internal control leads to decreases incidence of depression (Helgeson, 1992). Internals are more likely to investigate methods to improve their health, however, some may decide to self-treat themselves without consulting medical professionals.
Personality Factors that Lead to Unhealthy Behaviors
Pessimism – Akin to optimism, there are two trains of though for pessimism: 1) The very expectation that bad things will occur and good things will not; and 2) Describing bad events as the result of internal, stable, and universal causes.
A pessimism outlook in life may lead to stressful anxiety. The biochemical imbalance may hinder neuro-protective functions, thereby causing greater risk at developing Parkinson’s disease (Lyons, 2004), dementia, cancer, and immunologic disorders.
Type A Personality – This personality type is characterized by:
- Time urgency – impatience, anxiety, little time for relaxation, and poor sleep patterns.
- Competition – strenuous workers, and compulsive/neurotic tendencies.
- Anger – aggressiveness and hostility.
Earlier studies suggest individuals with Type A personalities have much greater risk for cardiovascular disease, however, more recent lines of research indicate minute or no correlation (Ragland & Brand, 1988). Nonetheless, Type A’s report greater symptoms of minor illness (Suls & Marco, 1990).
External Locus of Control – Individuals who feel external sources control their actions, rather than being internal-borne, vision success as a matter of chance. They are more receptive to supervision. Given the lack of manipulating their control internally, externals often fail to exercise, diet, and seek medical treatment.
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