If someone asked you to list all the personality attributes that help people cope with stress, a sense of optimism or the "can do" attitude would most likely be toward the top of your list. Optimism is a quality long celebrated in musical history lore. There's the spunky heroine Nellie in "South Pacific"proclaiming the virtues of being a "cockeyed optimist." Then there's Maria in "The Sound of Music," loudly declaring herself to have confidence in sunshine, rain, and most importantly "me." Most recently, the characters in "Rent," cope with HIV/AIDS in their inspirational "Seasons of Love."
Popular culture images aside, in real life we tend to try to bolster ourselves through difficult times by conjuring up our own hopeful messages. Hope is a feeling associated with the expectation that situations, whatever they are, will improve. "In life, there is hope," say some, or "In hope, there is life," say others. President Obama personified this optimism about the future in the message of hope that drove his 2008 campaign. His optimism seemed authentic and every indication from his behavior is that he is a man with a basically optimistic personality. So when faced with the struggles of the past two years, his optimism should have buffered him, we might think, from the slings and arrows of attacks from both right and left.
It turns out, however, that optimism doesn't always equip people for long-term stresses. This was shown in an intriguing 2006 study of law students carried out by Suzanne Segerstrom of the University of Kentucky. The immune responses of optimistic and pessimistic students were compared when they were operating under high and low demands for their time and energy. Normally, optimists tend to perceive less stress because either they are better able to cope or because they see the world with rosier glasses. However, when demands become ultra severe, the optimists suffered a lower immune response than pessimists.
Part of the reason for the poorer immune response of optimists is the way they approach stressful situations. When faced with a stressor, whether it's a major life crisis such as the loss of a close relative or friend, or a daily "hassle" such as getting caught in traffic, we can cope in basically one of two ways. In emotion-focused coping, you try to make yourself feel better through strategies such as looking at the bright side, putting the bad event out of your mind or calming your feelings through relaxation or meditation. In problem-focused coping, you try to turn the tide and actually get to the root of the stress. You decide what's needed, set forth a plan, and go through the steps needed to complete the plan.
Researchers discovered years ago that there is no "right" way to cope with hard situations. Sometimes emotion-focused coping is more adaptive and at other times, problem-focused coping will alleviate the stress. You're better off using emotion focused coping when it's too late to do anything to change the situation. Emotion-focused coping also works when there is an ongoing stressor that is outside of your control, such as a landlord who refuses to tell the residents of a next-door apartment to turn down their loud music late at night. On the other hand, when your actions will determine the consequences and change a negative outcome, emotion-focused coping can have unfortunate effects. Wishing a huge project at work would be smaller won't make the project any smaller. You just have to tackle it. Problem-focused coping, then, is what's most effective when your efforts really will make a difference.
Now we get to the part about optimists. With their strong belief in hope, their "can-do" attitude often leads optimists to adopt problem-focused coping past the point when their efforts to change the situation will make a difference. They believe that they can achieve what they want to, just by trying hard. This type of perfectionism can lead them to hold false and unrealistic expectations. They'd be better off sitting down and taking a breather rather than continually striving to change the unchangeable. In terms of the law students, unusually high demands tended to overwhelm them, causing their immune responses to fail.
You can see the parallels to President Obama's situation. The optimism of his "hope" message came face-to-face with a set of daunting issues when he took over the Presidency. Tackling these issues in a step-by-step manner, he clearly used problem-focused coping to deal with crisis after crisis. In fact, commentators often spoke disparagingly of his lack of emotion such as in the aftermath of the BP oil spill. The cool problem-oriented approach he took instead fit perfectly with the optimist's way of approaching a stressful situation. Eventually, just like the law students in the optimism-immune system study, Obama eventually became worn down, as was evident in his news conference following the November 2, 2010 election. The day after the "shellacking" (to use his own words), he looked exhausted and deflated.
Optimists eventually bounce back from these situations, regroup, and figure out new angles from which to approach stress. As you can see, though, they're more likely to be successful at managing their stress when they recognize the limitations of problem-focused coping.
Here are some tips for you to follow so that, no matter what your level of optimism, you can cope more successfully with stress:
1. Don't throw away hope- but try to be realistic. Hope is not something we want to squash out completely. But if you believe strongly that something better is always around the corner, you might consider adjusting your world view when the corner proves impossible to turn.
2. Learn to gauge the changeability of a situation. Adjust your coping methods to reality. If the problem is one that you truly can fix, then go for it. If you sense that the solution isn't there, then find a way to manage your emotions and, if necessary, your disappointment.
3. Find sources of social support. One of the most remarkably solid findings in the stress literature is the important role of other people in helping us cope. Though not strictly "problem" or "emotion" focused, talking to someone does help improve your mood and may eventually remedy the situation.
4. Don't be discouraged by frustration. Sometimes frustration is the natural way to feel. We don't always have to feel like everything is on an even keel emotionally in our lives. Learning to wait with unpleasant feelings of loss, pain, or anger without looking for an immediate solution may give you the perspective you need to prepare for future challenges.
5. Take care of your immune system. Stress doesn't always have direct effects on the immune system; instead, stress sometimes leads to behaviors that cause the immune system to lower its effectiveness in warding off illness. Lack of sleep, poor diet, and failure to exercise due to overwork are all associated with stress and ultimately to poorer health. If you take care of your immune system, it will take care of you.
You may not be able to remove all the stress in your life, but you can benefit from knowledge about stress and an understanding of the coping process. You can be an optimist, but try not to be too "cockeyed."
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Susan is the author of 15 books including her most recent book, "The Search for Fulfillment."
Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2010
Segerstrom, S. (2006). How does optimism suppress immunity? Evaluation of three affective pathways. Health Psychology, 25, 653-657.