The idea that human personality affects health, wellness, and disease is hardly new, dating back to Hippocrates, the author of the medical oath of ethics still governing the practice of modern medicine today (Selye, 1956). In the era of high-tech scientific research, substantial empirical evidence has corroborated the long-noted anecdotal observations that certain types of personalities and chronic behavioral responses to environmental stressors correspond to different degrees of susceptibility to a wide range of physiological ailments and diseases (Flannery & Flannery, 2006; Friedman, 1990). To a large extent, many medical conditions with bona fide physical symptoms and physiological effects are attributable either all or in part to psychological factors in the realm of personality in general and in the realm of response and coping mechanisms in relation to stress in particular.
Renowned physician and author John E. Sarno has published a considerable volume of research and analysis on the relationship between emotional stress and physiological ailments of a wide variety. His work has demonstrated that lower back pain in particular, which afflicts more than three-quarters of all adults at one time or another, is substantially attributable to purely psychological causes (Sarno, 2007). Lower back pain alone is responsible for a tremendous amount of money, disability, and lost working hours spent on palliative relief and rehabilitation.
Even worse, Dr. Sarno (2007) has demonstrated empirically that the conclusions of other researchers (Acosta, 1990; Flannery & Flannery, 2006, & Friedman, 1990) that a large percentage of surgeries are performed for medical conditions attributable to stress rather than to any organic causes. The list of medical conditions considered highly susceptible to the influence of personality include a wide range of gastrointestinal conditions, arthritis, fibromyalgia, heart disease, high blood pressure, sciatica, and even various systemic infection and apparent local chronic injuries such as lateral epicondylitis or “tennis elbow” (Flannery & Flannery, 2006, Sarno, 2007).
In that regard, the specific mechanism identified is primarily a function of: (1) the psychological repression of negative emotions such as anger and rage, fear, anxiety, guilt, and shame; (2) the resulting displacement of that stress from the conscious mind in alternate areas where it manifests itself as physical symptoms; (3) the influence of chronically high levels specific hormones associated with the biological stress response, such as cortisol; (4) chronic overwork of the circulatory and respiratory systems; and (5)
the chronic reduction of re-oxygenation of tissues through blood flow (Sarno, 2007).
To a certain extent, susceptibility to the long-term medical consequences of stress are subject to hereditary influence. In that respect, different individuals have very different natural physiological responses to various triggers of exposure to environmental stress (Friedman, 1990). Nevertheless, many of the differences that enable some individuals to avoid the secondary consequences of unavoidable stress can be taught and learned through conscious effort and purposeful conditioning, or de-conditioning, as the case may be (Acosta, 1990; Sarno, 2007). This is especially true to the extent that various aspects of the natural response to stress are learned rather than functions of innate genetic predisposition.
Typical methods of behavioral conditioning capable of reducing the secondary consequences of stress include coping mechanisms for the recognition of the earliest symptoms of stress and training to respond to stress in more positive ways instead of either repressing it or overreacting to it (Acosta, 1990; Selye, 1956). Furthermore, Sarno
(2007) reports that merely teaching patients to use their awareness of physiological symptoms as a method of recognizing their natural responses to stress significantly improves their ability to redirect negative emotions and prevent them from contributing toward their manifestation in physical symptoms.
Furthermore, Sarno (2007) also suggests that emotional awareness of physical pain as a symptom of stress provides a valuable biofeedback tool. In addition to learning how to alter one’s immediate psychological response in the moment of stressful circumstances, effective methods of increasing psychological resistance to disease teach other mechanisms such as maintaining a broader approach to keep stressful events in perspective, and avoiding negative mindset in relation to self-criticism and relational comparisons to others, such as in the vocational arena and social relationships (Acosta,
1990′ Flannery & Flannery, 2006).
Sarno (2007) has developed these techniques extensively and has reported that reducing the cumulative effects of environmental stress through behavioral training even enhances resistance to bacterial infection by boosting the efficiency and the intensity of the immune response to foreign threats at the microscopic level. Admittedly, these techniques cannot eliminate organic disease; on the other hand, volumes of research have documented the degree to which the subjective perception of pain is susceptible to emotional influence (Friedman, 1990; Sarno, 2007). Ultimately, the development of a disease-resistant personality is dependent on the individual’s awareness of his genuine thoughts, feelings, and reactions to the many sources of stresses that are part of life in modern society. The long-term hope of medical practitioners who advocate techniques for doing so recognize the limitations of behavioral approaches to medical issues, but suggest that it is possible, at least, to address the non-organic physiological consequences of stress through non-invasive behavioral modification instead of through prescription drugs, physical therapy, and surgery.
Acosta S. “The interrelationship of stressors, hardiness personality and social support on the severity of manifestations of stress symptoms among high-income men.”
University of Maryland College Park, MD. Ph.D. Dissertation (1990). Retrieved
April 15, 2009, from ProQuest Digital Dissertations database (Pub. No AAT
Flannery, RB, Flannery, GJ. “Sense of coherence, life stress, and psychological distress:
A prospective methodological inquiry” Journal of Clinical Psychology Vol. 46,
No. 4: 415 — 420, February 21, 2006.
Friedman, HS. (1990). Personality and Disease. New York: Wiley & Sons.
Sarno, JE, Mann, SJ, Rashbaum, I, Leonard-Segal, A, (2007). Divided Mind: The
Epidemic of Mindbody Disorders. New York: Harper-Collins.
Selye H. (1956) The Stress of Life. New York: McGraw Hill.
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