Social Psychology Term Paper

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Optimism and Pessimism Relates to Stress and Coping with Cancer

An increasing amount of research links negative and positive emotional states to wellness or ill health. The negative or pessimistic emotions seem to have a negative effect on the immune system and on general health. Pessimism has been shown to be unhealthy and have adverse effects on health, including increasing the risk of cancer and preventing recovery from the disease. On the other hand, positive or optimistic emotions have been shown to strengthen immune function and bring good health. (Gillman, 1989)

There is a wealth of research that suggests optimism has a positive association with better mental and physical health, as well as coping with stress. Pessimism has been linked to a higher risk of death before the age of 65, while positive emotions, like optimism, are linked to lowered production of the stress hormone cortisol, better immune function, and reduced risk of chronic illnesses, such as cancer.

Dealing with Stress

People are confronted with a variety of problems throughout their lives. When faced with a problem, it is important to first determine the seriousness of the problem and determine what resources are needed in order to cope with problem. If an individual believes that the problem is serious and believes that he does not have the resources necessary to cope with the problem, he will perceive himself as being under stress (Cohen et. al., 1995).

Stress is a process in which environmental demands strain an individual's adaptive capacity, resulting in both psychological as well as biological changes that could put a person at risk for illness (Cohen et. al., 1995). Many things cause stress, including disasters, life crises, life changes, and daily hassles (Rubin, Paplau, & Salovey, 1993).

These events interfere with an important personal goal. The more important the goal is, the more stress a person will feel when that goal is threatened. So for example, if it's important to a person to make money, the person will feel stress if he loses his job. A person is bound to feel incredible stress if a serious illness, such as cancer, threatens their life.

When someone is faced with stress, his body may experience a fight or flight reaction, in which the heart rate increases, breathing is accelerated, and the muscles tense up as if in preparation to throw something like a rock (fight) or to run away (flight) (Rubin, Paplau, & Salovey, 1993).

If stress continues after the initial fight or flight reaction, the body's reaction enters a second stage (Rubin, Paplau, & Salovey, 1993). During this stage, the activity of the sympathetic nervous system declines and epinephrine secretion is lessened, but corticosteriod secretion continues at above normal levels. Lastly, if the stress continues and the body is unable to cope, there is likely to be breakdown of bodily resources. This causes depression.

Stressful life events are related to the risk of sick people, such as cancer patients, developing an illness (Cohen et. al., 1998). Traumatic stressful events often trigger either behavioral or biological processes that contribute to the onset of disease. Chronic stress has been associated with increased reports of illness.

Some people tend to believe that they can maintain control over stressful situations. These people are said to have an optimistic coping style (Rubin, Paplau, & Salovey, 1993). Other people have a pessimistic coping style, they view the world as an uncontrollable, unpredictable place in which they will never be able to gain control over things that bother them.

In sum, stress can increase our susceptibility to illness. While coping style and social support can decrease our susceptibility to illness.

Cancer and Stress

Recent studies have taken a focused look at the possible links between psychological factors, such as personality style, depressed mood, hopelessness, social support and anger, and cancer survival, looking specifically at the influence of optimism and pessimism. One study, "Pessimism, Age, and Cancer Mortality, " (Schultz, et al., 1998) has identified pessimism as an important risk factor for morality in cancer patients under the age of 60.

The study, "Pessimism, Age, and Cancer Mortality, " monitored 238 cancer patients who were receiving radiation treatment for their symptoms. Assessments of the patients' optimism, pessimism and level of depression were recorded when they entered the study and again four months and eight months later. By the eight-month, seventy patients had already died.

The study indicates that while there was no significant association between optimism or depression and survival or mortality, there was a definite association between pessimism and mortality, but only for those patients under 60. "Our findings," the authors write, "indicate that the endorsement of a pessimistic life orientation may function as an important risk factor for mortality among younger cancer patients."

Sadness and grief are a part of life and cannot be avoided. However, depression, which is caused by a pessimistic attitude, is a pervasive mood that can lead to a downward spiral that significantly compromises personal health. Studies show that optimism may be a vaccination for depression.

In coping with cancer, patients may very well respond with high levels of activity, seeking to recover, or simply respond with resignation. If they respond with resignation or pessimism, they are more likely to experience sadness.

With resignation comes pessimism, and pessimism is believed to lead to depression. When cancer patients believe stressful events are outside the range of their control, they are likely to feel helpless and subsequently become depressed. Depressed people are very vulnerable to the ravages of stress.

However, optimism seems to have protective value. Martin Seligman, in Learned Optimism, points out that: Optimists catch fewer infectious diseases than pessimists do; optimists have better health habits than pessimists do; immune systems may work better when people are optimistic; and optimists may very well live longer than pessimists.

Patients feel better when they are glad an optimistic. Anxiety, depression and bad moods increase pain and lead you to health problems such as migraines, ulcers, stress and even more serious complications, like high pressure, heart attack and stroke," writes Seligman in his book.

Optimists, in general, usually expect a good outcome or see positively in most situations. This disposition shows hope for the future. A person's mind remains clear when he or she truly believes that goals can be achieved. The individual is inclined to feel better, works more efficiently, and is not hindered by negative emotions.

Experts believe that the positive feelings projected by optimism allow the body to function in a healthier state, and create an energy that enables the individual to function more productively.

Cancer and Attitude

According to Robert Shuman, the author of "The Psychology of Chronic Illness," approximately thirty million Americans have been diagnosed with chronic illnesses that limit normal day-to-day activities. The most popular of these illnesses is cancer.

The concept of "learned helplessness" describes the reaction of people who are experience stressful events, like cancer, which they believe to be out of their control. (Seligman, Shuman)

Helplessness in humans is modified by their explanatory style, which is what they tell themselves about the causes of their successes and failures. There are two explanatory styles: the optimistic explanatory style and the pessimistic explanatory style.

The pessimistic explanatory style is based on three characteristics. When experiencing failure the pessimist believes he is responsible for the event. The pessimist also believes that the event will turn out to be a permanent situation, and this negative event will spread to other situations. Pessimistic thinking may lead to learned helplessness because the individual is blaming himself.

The individual who does not experience helplessness does not take blame, and sees the situation as a temporary one. The situation would then be confined to just one aspect of the individual's life, and is, therefore, not pervasive. A pessimistic explanatory style changes learned helplessness from brief and local to a permanent and general one. Full-blown depression could result when the person who fails is a pessimist. The optimist, however, experiences only a brief period of demoralization.

A different study indicated that optimism and healthy minds contribute to more healthy bodies. (Shuman) The study showed that people with at least six symptoms of depression had a minor cognitive capacity, a major risk of developing diseases and a minor autonomy in carrying out daily activities as opposed to people who had optimistic attitudes.

In addition, people with a negative state of mind demonstrated more difficulties after being operated on or treated for illnesses. Pessimistic people had less faith in their abilities, in the world in general and therefore also in the possibilities that an operation will be successful or that cures might actually help.

Optimism Can Help

Studies indicate that the difference between optimists and pessimists just might amount to about 12 years of life. (Bittman, 1994) An examination of personality tests performed in the 1960's and the 1990's scientifically measured the relationship between attitude and longevity over about 30 years. The results of the study showed that stress was not the cause of physical…

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