Mar 8, 2013

Our susceptibility to illness depends on our personalities

Excerpt from a conversation with Dr. Dennis Jaffe, a Yale-trained clinical psychologist who has helped thousands of people suffering from depression, burnout, and a whole host of physical ailments recognize and reverse their own self-destructive attitudes. Dr. Jaffe has also authored, edited, and contributed to numerous books related to the power of the mind over the body, including Healing from Within; Mind, Body and Health; and From Burnout to Balance.

Question: We're all aware of the type of people who seem to superimpose stress on their lives, setting unrealistic goals, working against the clock, rejecting anything less than perfect, delegating few tasks because "no one can do it like I can." Social scientists have labeled this collection of traits the Type A personality. But by referring to this pattern of behavior as a "personality," they suggest to us that it is something inherent to our character, that we are "by nature" driven to behave that way. Not surprisingly, too, people so possessed -- the workaholics, perfectionists, worriers -- often resign themselves to an I-can't-help-myself-I-just-am state of mind. How much control do we really have over a self-destructive personality?

Dr. Jaffe: That depends on your motivation to change. First let me say that Type A is not a personality. That is a misconception that's perpetuated by many people in my field. When you call something a personality, you make it seem unnecessarily rigid. Unchangeable. But when you think of Type A as a series of behavior patterns, you see that each one of those patterns is nothing more than a bad habit. You can work on changing a habit. It's difficult and it takes time, but you can do it. You can change.

Question: Are there other behavior patterns that can increase our susceptibility to, say, cancer or other illnesses?

Dr. Jaffe: The cancer pattern is well-established in the literature. It's characterized by feelings of helplessness and hopelessness -- the sense that you've been victimized by factors beyond your control and that you have no power to change that.

In recent years we've discovered that this same pattern of behavior is connected to other illnesses. Rheumatoid arthritis. Allergies. Any immune-related diseases –including Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). It's as if your immune system is acting analogously with your behavior. You're not trying to change your life or take care of yourself -- in essence, you've just given up -- and your immune system says, well if you've given up, so will I. The result is that the immune system becomes depressed and you are susceptible to a whole host of illnesses.

Question: Has the Type A behavior likewise been linked to other illnesses beyond heart disease?

Dr. Jaffe: Oh yes. Type A activity -- being supercharged -- can burn out your circulatory system and gastric system. So, in addition to heart attack, you find that people who behave this way very often suffer from hypertension, chronic headaches, ulcers, colitis.

I have a theory that there are essentially two different types of destructive behavior patterns: One has to do with over-control -- the Type A. The other has to do with under-control -- the helplessness/hopelessness syndrome. Both relate to stress-coping styles. And the key word here is "control."

Now there are all types of coping styles that fall between these two extreme poles of under -- or over-control. The optimal behavior falls right in the middle -- the point of balance. I call it optimal control. The person who practices optimal control -- the healthy person -- seems to actively take care of the things that need to be taken care of and has the capacity to say no, that 's not my problem, I'm not going to waste my energy worrying about things beyond my control. He's got a realistic sense of personal power -- not overpowered or underpowered.

Question: How do you keep yourself in check then, monitoring your stress responses to ensure that you're maintaining "optimal control"?

Dr. Jaffe: The key to the process is self-awareness. If you look at burned-out executives, people with health problems, and people who have difficulty coping with stress, you'll find that they all have a common characteristic: They do not tune in to their bodies. They're not aware, until things really go awry, that stress is, in fact, taking its toll daily and needs to be countered somehow with a healthful, enriching activity.

For example, if you begin to become aware of the effect of your work patterns on your body, you might realize that you need to do something to balance your rhythms. For instance, if you're sitting at a desk typing for eight hours straight, even taking your lunch at your desk, you may experiment by going to a health club at noon and then eating a carrot and bowl of soup or some yogurt. Or maybe what you need is to take a walk in the park after work. Then monitor yourself to see if that makes a difference in your energy level. People don't understand that they need to listen to their bodies and exert control over their lives so that they are able to respond. That's where time management and planning come in. (‘The Complete Guide to Your Emotions and Your Health’, by Emrika Padus and staff of Prevention magazine)