Procrastination, Hypertension and Cardiovascular Disease

... and why self-compassion may be a key to bouncing back.

Posted Dec 01, 2015

As readers of my blog will know (and as my editors have pointed out), I have been away from my blog for the past three months. It’s not that I haven’t been writing; it’s just that my co-editor and I were working toward a book deadline. I’m happy to say we made it, and that Procrastination, Health and Well-Being will be published in mid-2016. For now, I want to focus on a recent study that my co-editor has published, as it underscores how procrastination is more than just "the thief of time.”

Fuschia Sirois (Sheffield University, UK) has been a pioneer in studying the health effects of procrastination. Over a decade ago, she set out the procrastination-health model that she has tested in a number of studies. Based on this research, it’s clear that procrastination is related to illness—through the direct effects of stress as well as the indirect effects of fewer wellness behaviors (less exercise or sleep, poorer diet, etc.). Treatment delay (“I’ll get that looked at later”) is also a factor. 

Even though this relation between procrastination and poorer health is established, the results of her most recent study came as a surprise to me.

Using a community sample of individuals with hypertension and cardiovascular disease (HT/CVD) compared to a sample of healthy controls, she demonstrated that higher procrastination scores were predictive of HT/CVD. Procrastination was also more strongly associated with maladaptive coping behaviors in participants with HT/CVD than in the healthy controls. This relation between procrastination and HT/CVD presented even after controlling for other known predictors of HT/CVD such as age, sex, ethnicity, education level and two other major personality traits.

In other words, procrastination makes a unique contribution in our understanding of our adjustment to and management of hypertension and cardiovascular disease.

Most importantly, Fuschia found that the participants in the HT/CVD group engaged in more behavioral disengagement and self-blame. This underscores not only the basic relation of procrastination with maladaptive coping generally, but also the significant negative health effects associated with procrastination specifically. As Fuschia’s model makes clear, maladaptive coping plays a crucial role in understanding procrastination and its effects.

Implications: The role of self-compassion

While acknowledging the limitations of this single study, Fuschia does speak to what this means to anyone with cardiovascular problems:

“... [T]he current findings provide suggestive evidence for the importance of identifying individuals with HT/CVD who chronically procrastinate for interventions to address the self-critical and avoidant coping styles that may contribute to further health risks. Therapeutic strategies to cultivate self-compassion, a tendency to be kind to oneself in times of challenge, may be one way to facilitate translational application of these findings into practice. Such strategies may be particularly effective for targeting the harsh self-critical thoughts that consume procrastinators and disrupt adaptive coping, as research has shown that procrastination is linked to low self-compassion, and that self-compassion relates to adaptive coping, lower stress, and positive health behaviors.” (p. 587, specific references removed)

Photographee.eu/Shutterstock
Source: Photographee.eu/Shutterstock

Self-critical and avoidant coping styles contribute to further health risks, so we need to think further about why we adopt these coping styles. The answer is emotion regulation, and I’ll turn to this next in an upcoming post. (Yes, I'm back.)

References

Sirois, F. M. (2007). ‘‘I’ll look after my health, later’’: A replication and extension of the procrastination–health model with community-dwelling adults. Personality and Individual Differences, 43, 15–26.

Sirois, F. M. (2015). Is procrastination a vulnerability factor for hypertension and cardiovascular disease? Testing an extension
of the procrastination–health model. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 38, 578-589.

Sirois, F. M., Melia-Gordon, M. L., & Pychyl, T. A. (2003). ‘‘I’ll look after my health, later’’: An investigation of procrastination and health. Personality and Individual Differences, 35, 1167–1184.