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Last Updated Saturday May 27 2017 06:43 AM IST

Heal Thy Self | Is your personality making you sick?

Nirmala Ferrao
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Personality

Ayurvedic practitioners have been saying it for centuries: your personality type can affect your health. They even classified personality traits into three broad categories called doshas. There is Vata (excitable, talkative, quick, changeable, usually optimistic); Pitta (hot-headed, impatient, competitive, intense, sharp, outspoken); Kapha (slow, steady, solid, tolerant, forgiving). These doshas were said to be governing agents that facilitated the mind’s dialogue with the body, coming into play at junction points where thoughts become physical manifestations in the body. The ancient Vedic sages also believed that states of mind affected immune function and therefore your health profile. As they taught, if you want to know what your body will be like 10 years down the line, look at the thoughts you’re having today.

Belatedly, Western medicine has caught up and converged to this line of thinking in recent decades. We now have a stack of research findings that suggest that slow accretion of damage from personality traits such as hostility, pessimism and chronic anxiety play significant roles not only in determining our mental health but also our physical health. In the case of some health outcomes, the impact of temperament has been found to be as potent and significant as that of high cholesterol, elevated blood pressure, smoking or diet.

To some extent, research in this field has been marked by confusion confounded, by contradictory findings and, very often, by roads wrongly taken. But, after some course correction, certain conclusions can now be firmly drawn.

Type 'A' versus Type 'H'

Thus, beginning in the 1960s, it was ‘Type A’ personality that hogged the headlines and became virtually an idée fixe in the medical community. Persons with Type A personality were quick to Anger – with a capital ‘A’. They were characterized by three specific traits – impatience, competitiveness and hostility. And they were pinpointed as being in the high-risk category for heart disease and, subsequently, heart attacks. It was a duo of cardiologists who were given credit for birthing Type ‘A’ personality – they, it seems, had noticed that, unlike most patients who sit, well, patiently in waiting rooms, their own patients, burdened by heart conditions, seemed unable to sit in their seats for long. They tended to sit on the edge of the seat and leaped up frequently. (Which prompted the humorous aside that it was not the cardiologists who discovered Type A, it was an unknown upholsterer who told the doctors, “There’s something different about your patients. I’ve never seen anyone wear out chairs like this.” The cardiologists told him his services were no longer needed, wrote out his cheque and sent him on his way. And then they took the credit for discovering Type A.)

But even as “Type A personality” was becoming part of the popular vocabulary in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the concept was already falling apart in scientific circles as a reliable predictor of heart disease. A number of persons being felled by heart attacks were not Type A’s, nor had they any of the other known risks for heart disease.

From the mid-80s to the mid-90s, another concept took center-stage. It emerged from research that seemed to show that it was specifically one characteristic of Type A – hostility – that was the real trouble-maker. A hostile personality is defined not just by anger but also by cynicism and aggression – by the attitude that other people cannot be trusted and the tendency to lash out. Belligerent people also tend to be more socially isolated and more prone to depression – both health risks in themselves. But the initial findings from research into Type H, as it was called, failed to be replicated by later studies; the conclusion was that Type H theory was faring only slightly better than its Type A counterpart.

Are you a “high responder”?

Personality

Does this mean that pushy or hostile persons aren’t endangering their hearts and their lives? No, it doesn’t; many of them surely are. But more recent research in the field adds an important twist to both theories. Its findings suggest that it’s not anger or hostility per se that puts a person at risk, but the tendency to experience almost any negative emotion more intensely than other people. And that includes less overtly stressful emotions like fear, anxiety, depression or frustration. These intense responses may not be reflected in the person’s behavior, or even in his or her facial expressions – but inside, it’s taking a heavy toll. The body goes into overdrive, producing excessive levels of stress hormones, disrupting digestion, squeezing the arteries, moving blood into the muscles and churning the heart. When this happens too often, precious arteries become bruised, hardened and clogged, the master pump strains under the load, and zap – heart attack.

Researchers have tagged the label of “high responders” to those who over-react to unpleasant experiences. And they are as likely to be timorous old ladies who respond to stressful situations with frightened smiles, as they are likely to be gregarious extroverts, opinionated but not explosive.

Nuclear imaging has shown, in fact, that high-responders react to unexpected situations or minor hassles in exaggerated fashion -- and when they do, their bodies flash a warning signal: their arteries tighten, their heart sometimes gasps for more blood, and one of its chambers may fall out of rhythm with the others – a momentary condition called ischaemia that warns that the heart is headed for trouble.

Therapists have long recognized this type of thinking. They call it “cognitive distortion” – a self-destructive habit of thinking that can transform meaningless episodes into plagues of anxiety.

5 ways you can cut your risks

Since it’s a habit, it’s a learned response, not something you were born with. And what has been learned can be unlearned. But it takes time and motivation. Essentially, it calls for a high-responder to step back, reflect on why (s)he reacts as s(he) does, and work on learning new ways of managing emotions. Therapists have a name for this, too: “cognitive therapy”.

Cognitive therapy works by helping people identify negative thoughts in themselves and substitute forgiving alternatives. Below are five pattern types, and how your perceptions, in each case, can be altered to a more positive outlook:

1. All-or-nothing thinking

Personality

An assignment is either done to perfection or badly botched. The boss is either an amazing genius or a total fool. My God, I yelled at my kids. I must be an awful parent.

The fact is, Mozart had days when the harpsichord clanged, and our freedom fighters lost more than a few battles before they won the war. Remind yourself that no single episode defines a person, and a sole flaw rarely characterizes an entire project.

2. Discounting the positive

Many people possess the uncanny ability to find guile in every act of kindness, bad luck in every stroke of good. Every compliment is considered insincere, every success a fluke. She wouldn’t have said my new haircut looked great if I hadn’t just gained 5 kilos.

Who cares? These days compliments are as rare as acts of chivalry, and they’re more often genuine than not. Lap them up.

3. Assuming the worst

You know what others are thinking and how things will turn out – and none of it is good. No matter what they say, you sense that friends are annoyed with you, co-workers are jealous, and perfect strangers are making snide remarks.

Therapists recommend adopting a kind of forced optimism… you’ll find more often than not that it is justified. Despite what you might infer from their faces and gestures, people are usually more generous-spirited than you think.

4. Over generalizing

A close cousin to all-or-nothing thinking, this is the habit of identifying every letdown as part of a dark pattern of failure. A missed promotion or a rejected invitation for a date will be followed by more of the same because that’s the way things go for you.

Try to evaluate each event independently. If you’ve been nixed for a promotion, sit down and analyze what you might have done wrong. And perhaps the girl -- or guy -- who turned you down may have been involved in a messy break-up with someone else at the time.

5. Personalizing

Personality

A primary source of guilt, this is the tendency to assume responsibility and blame for something that may have nothing at all to do with you. Say, a colleague cuts off a conversation mid-sentence. Or someone on the bus seems to be glaring your way. You ask, what did I do wrong?

The answer, most of the time: nothing. If you really did sour a deal or say something offensive, most people will let you know.

Working at overcoming cognitive distortions like those listed above does not produce perfect results overnight. You need to give yourself a fair chance at shifting focus, using this approach. If you find you’re not making progress on your own, it may signal that professional therapy is in order. CBT (Cognitive Behavior Therapy) has won its spurs as one of the most successful techniques in counseling today.

(The author, a former editor of Health & Nutrition magazine, now works as a counselling therapist)

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