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The idea of studying emotions and their correlation to disease really started with cardiovascular disease. We’ve all heard the phrase “Type A personality”, which came directly from the research done by Dr. Meyer Friedman and Dr. Ray Rosenman back in the 1950’s. Their research was quite compelling, and a great place for us to start our discussion of how to avoid heart disease.
Friedman and Rosenman conducted their research by interviewing over 3,000 men and categorizing them as either type A or type B, depending on their personalities. Type A men were marked by aggression, hostility, and impatience, rigid organization, taking on more than they could handle, and obsessed with time management. Type B men were pretty much the opposite, apathetic, patient, relaxed, easy going, with no real sense of urgency. Over the next 8 1/2 years, the two researchers followed these men and recorded their incidence of heart attacks, sudden death, and angina. What they found was that men with type A personalities had twice as many heart attacks, sudden death, and angina. It is true that these men also had higher rates of cigarette smoking, but when they crunched the numbers, Friedman and Rosenman concluded that it wasn’t all due to the increased rates of smoking, that the personality traits themselves seemed to be predictive of cardiac events.
Later research conducted by a psychiatrist named Redford Williams in the 1970’s isolated the hostility and cynicism factors of type A personality as having the strongest correlation to heart disease. Study participants who exhibited some of the other aspects of type A: ambition, strong organization, time management, but did not display the hostility and cynicism component did not have as strong a correlation to heart disease as those who did.
The Effects of Type A
The continual baseline stress response associated with type A personalities is what contributes to the development of atherosclerosis. Study subjects with type A personalities were found to have larger atherosclerotic plaques than those with type B. These plaques take years to develop, which indicates that the damage done by hostility is slow and gradual, rather than causing a sudden, acute event. The increased secretion of adrenaline and cortisol over a lifetime leads to thickened vessel walls and increased release of fat from the body’s stores in order to fuel the fight or flight response. However, with our modern lifestyle that requires less and less physical activity but causes increased stress, the fat released to fuel our body goes unused, and often gets deposited in the vessel walls. This leads to atheroslcerotic plaques.
Breaking the cycle
So if you’re a type A personality and prone to cynicism and hostility, what do you do about it? First of all, stop and take a deep breath in, hold it for a few seconds, and let it out. No seriously, stop reading and do it! Slow deep breathing stimulates your vagus nerve, which controls your parasympathetic nervous system. This will slow your heart rate, lower your blood pressure, and help stop the stress response. Throughout your day as you find yourself getting stressed and hostile, take a few second and just breathe. You may find yourself able to handle the situation more calmly when you don’t have adrenaline coursing through your veins. And if you find yourself being cynical, stop and ask yourself why. Are you stuck in a job or a relationship or some other situation that constantly stresses you out and never changes? Well, maybe you have reasons to be cynical about it then. What can you do to change the situation? Are you contributing to the problem? Can you change your own behavior and get a different result? Or do you need to leave the situation entirely and accept the fact that it won’t ever change, but that doesn’t mean you have to continue to be a part of it? Sit down, evaluate your life and ask yourself if its worth the risk of staying in a stressful situation and risking the development of cardiovascular disease. At the end of the day, you have to look out for yourself so you can be around to enjoy your life and be with those you love. No job is worth jeopardizing your future.
Friedman, M., Roseman, R. (1959) “Association of specific overt behavior pattern with blood and cardiovascular findings”, Journal of the American Medical Association (169): 1286-1296.
Williams, R. (1984) “An Untrusting Heart: Cynicism Lies at the Core of the Pernicious Type A Personality”, The Sciences, September/October 1984.