The rise of the discipline of psychology in the nineteenth century had a strong impact in many areas. One of such areas has been the issue of health and diseases. The advancement of the discipline of psychology led to a lot of research that indicated the significance of psychological factors in health.

The significance of psychological factors made researchers look beyond the traditional biomedical approach, which has been used in understanding health and diseases. The biomedical model emphasizes on the role of biological factors in health, and does not consider psychological factors to be important.

The biomedical medical has been considered to be a very narrow approach towards health. The significance of psychological factors has enabled health researchers to have a much broader perspective in understanding health. One of the early findings with respect to psychological factors has been the role of personality in physical health. Specific personalities have been found to be associated with behaviors that may make individuals vulnerable to health issues or may help individuals to cope with health-related problems.

With respect to physical health, there has been a wide range of research done on four personality types, which are called type A, type B, type C, and type D personality. Type A personality is associated with always being in a hurry, being highly competitive, tensed, being a workaholic, irritability, and hostility.

The type A personality was first discovered by the cardiologists, Meyer Friedman and Ray Rosenman. They found that people with type A personality have high levels of stress and experience high physiological arousal. It is these aspects of type A personality that make them prone to coronary-heart disease. More than their competitiveness, it is their hostile behavior that makes them more likely to have cardiac problems.

In contrast to type A personality, type B personality is associated with being relaxed, easy-going, patience, and not taking too much of stress. People with type B personality are also known to be less structured and organized, and being more creative and imaginative as compared to type A personality. Type Bs are thus, less likely to have any stress-related health issues. It has been found that people with type A personality are twice as likely to have cardiac problems as compared to people with type B personality.

Type C personality is associated with suppression of emotions. It is also referred to as cancer-prone personality, which suggests that type C personality is related to the disease of cancer. In 1975, Steven Greer and Tina Morris, from King’s College Hospital Medical School, interviewed patients with breast cancer and found behavior patterns associated with abnormal expression of emotions, including extreme suppression of anger. They named this behavior pattern as type C.

This initial finding led psychologists to think of specific emotional factors that could be a precursor to cancer. In this regard, the psychologist Lydia Temoshok found that suppression of emotions and giving emphasis to the needs of others over oneself are major factors that can increase breast cancer.

After years of research, the personality psychologist, Hans Eysenck, concluded that type C personality involves suppression of the emotions of fear and anger, as well as behaviors associated with these emotions, such as being assertive, displaying confidence, being angry, or trying to be a little selfish. Type C personality, according to Eysenck, also involves inappropriate coping mechanisms, which leads to the feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. These emotional factors and behavior patterns can, therefore, be viewed as precursors of cancer.

Among all these types of personality, type D personality or distressed personality is one that has been most recently discovered. Type D personality involves negative affectivity – the tendency to experience negative emotions - and social inhibition – the tendency to inhibit emotional expression and behavior in social interactions, due to fear of rejection.  

Type D personality was first discovered by the medical psychologist, Johan Denollet. It has been found associated with a wide range of health issues like dysphoria, cardiovascular problems, myocardial infarction, chronic inflammation, compromised immune system, and an increased risk of mortality.

The four different types of personality suggest that specific patterns of behavior are associated with a specific type of health issue. Psychologists, however, felt to rather explore a wide range of behavior patterns associated with varying health issues. This led the health psychologists, Howard Friedman and Booth-Kewley, to discover what they called the disease-prone personality.

The disease-prone personality involves negative emotions like depression, hostility, irritability, and anxiety. They give more emphasis on the negative aspects of life, and are often dissatisfied with their life. These negative emotions have been found associated with the occurrence of a number of diseases like asthma, arthritis, coronary artery disease, headaches, and ulcers. The disease-prone personality suggests that there are simultaneous characteristics combined together, associated with chronic negative emotionality, which are linked with various health issues.

A somewhat opposite of the disease-prone personality is the self-healing personality, which is a set of behavior patterns that help in resisting people to get any kind of a disease. Friedman has written extensively about the self-healing personality is his book titled The Self-healing personality: Why Some People Achieve Health and Others Succumb to Illness.

In his book, Friedman suggests that the self-healing personality involves being enthusiastic and highly energetic about life. They are fun-loving and like to seek out stimulating activities. Friedman also suggests that another aspect of the self-healing personality is being active, alert, involved, and yet calm and composed. In both the cases, the individuals are able to manage their stress levels properly.

On the whole, the self-healing personality involves a high level of emotional balance, which allow the physiological mechanisms to work efficiently, and thus, develops a greater resistance for stress, and the diseases related to it. The self-healing personality, therefore, helps in living a healthy life, which keeps the person away from developing serious illnesses and diseases.

One of the first characteristics to be identified as having resistance to developing diseases is hardiness. The personality psychologist Suzzanne Kobasa Oullette suggests that hardiness acts as a buffer to the stressful life events, which lead to damaging effects on health.

According to Oullette, hardiness comprises of three components – commitment, control, and challenge. Commitment is about engagement in life and viewing life as meaningful and purposeful. Control is the belief of being able to influence the events in life. Challenge is an orientation towards viewing change and adaptation as natural and rewarding, and associated with cognitive flexibility and ambiguity tolerance.

People who are high on hardiness are less likely to perceive stressful life events as threatening. They view themselves as capable of dealing with stressful life events, and are able to use effective coping strategies, such as using problem-focused coping, and even managing to get a lot of social support. High hardiness, in the occurrence of high levels of stress, has been found associated with decreased levels of illness and diseases.

Apart from being linked to diseases or being resistant to diseases, personality has also been associated with good or bad health behaviors. There has been empirical evidence of the trait of conscientiousness being related to good health behaviors. People who are high on conscientiousness are well-organized, disciplined, responsible, dependable, and persevering.

Conscientious individuals have been found to be involved in a number of health-promoting behaviors. They are less likely to engage in smoking, alcoholism, and other behaviors that may lead to health risks. Because of being involved in such health-promoting behaviors, conscientious people are known to have good health and longevity.

The personality associated with poor health behaviors is sensation seeking. According to the personality psychologist Mark Zuckerman, sensation seeking is the desire to seek out varied, novel, complex, and intense sensations and experiences. Such people have the willingness to take all kinds of high risks, including legal risks.

It is this willingness to take risks that makes individuals with the sensation seeking personality indulge in poor health behaviors and health risks. Such people get involved in wide range of poor health behaviors such as alcohol abuse, drug abuse, risky sexual behavior, and reckless, unsafe driving. These behaviors are not only bad for health, but also highly dangerous, and can also be life threatening.

Whether people indulge in health promoting behaviors or not often has been found to be depending on health locus of control. Health locus of control is the perceived control an individual may have over his or her health.

This control can be internal, that is, the individual feels that he or she can control their health and health outcomes. There may also be the perception that their health and health outcomes are controlled by health practitioners, or by chance. People who have an internal health locus of control have been found to be more involved in health promoting behaviors.

Personality, therefore, being associated with diseases, resistance to diseases, or even health behaviors, clearly, indicate the significance of psychological factors in physical health. Behavior patterns associated with these personalities can be identified as precursors and used as preventive measures for specific diseases. Additionally, awareness can be created about behavior patterns associated with resistance to diseases, helping more and more people to be involved in health promoting behaviors. 

Saif Farooqi

A PhD in Psychology (from the University of Delhi). I have been blogging about psychological issues for more than ten years. I am extremely passionate about teaching psychology. I'm a writer, an independent researcher, and conduct workshops and awareness programs in schools and colleges. Currently, I'm also working as an Assistant Professor in Psychology at the Department of Applied Psychology, Vivekananda College, University of Delhi, India.


TF said...

Very nice. Put this on Medium and you will get a lot of readers!

Saif Farooqi said...

Thank you! Yes, I'll be doing it soon