Coping Styles of Differing Personalities

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The effects of personality on illness may be mediated by differences in the coping styles adopted by dissimilar personality types. Michael Antoni (1987) found that persons who adopt more passive approaches to distressing events trigger a different set of neurological and endocrine reactions than persons who cope more actively. The helplessness, hyper vigilance, and withdrawal tendencies typical of passive coping are associated with much higher concentrations of cortisol, a stress hormone indicted for its negative effects on immune functioning. It seems that high levels of circulating cortisol sustained over long periods of time kill immune cells and hasten age-related memory loss. Elevated levels of cortisol are frequently found in persons experiencing depression, and chronic depression is associated with higher rates of morbidity and mortality. Thus, passive copers may be conducting chemical warfare against their own bodies.

Locke and Colligan (1986) at Harvard University found the effect of multiple life demands on blood levels of natural killer (NK) immune cells was strongly influenced by the presence or absence of distressing emotions. Medical students who reported high levels of anxiety and/or depression while coping with multiple life demands had diminished NK-cell activity, whereas students facing the same magnitude of life demands but reporting little or no anxiety or depression actually showed higher than normal NK cell activity. Thus, it seems that high demand loads have a watershed effect: Personalities given to experiencing high levels


of anxiety and/or depression experience suppression of immune functioning, while personalities devoid of such tendencies appear to have their immune systems further strengthened.

The field of medicine examining the interface of personality features with illness is referred to as psychoneuroim-munology. We now know that there is a direct link between brain structures and immune factors such as the thymus gland, T-lymphocytes, and macrophages. Moreover, we are now discovering that the chemical messengers that operate most extensively in both brain and immune system are dense in neuroanatomical areas that regulate emotion. The traffic seems to go both ways; that is, the brain produces neurochemicals that stimulate receptor sites on immune cells, and the immune system produces biochemicals that stimulate brain cells. Consequently, it seems likely that patterns of thinking typifying different personalities are likely to have differential effects on immune functioning.

In summary, the role of psychological factors conceptualized as features of personalities as causal or aggravating agents of illness is now universally recognized. There is a growing recognition, however, that personality as a construct may be too broad, with too many overlapping meanings, for optimal use in this context. A more rewarding direction for future research should focus attention on the less amorphous constructs often used in defining personalities.


Antoni, M. H. (1987). Neuroendocrine influences in psychoim-munology and neoplasia: Areview. Psychology and Health, 1, 3— 24.

Friedman, H. S., & Booth-Keeley, S. (1987). The "Disease prone personality": A meta-analytic view of the construct. American Psychologist, 42(6), 539-555. Friedman, M., & Rosenman, R. H. (1974). Type Abehavior and your heart. New York: Knopf. Locke, S., & Colligan, D. (1986). The healer within: The new medicine of mind and body. New York: The New American Library. Seligman, M. E. P. (1990, 1998). Learned optimism: How to change your mind and your life. New York: Pocket Books

Kenneth B. Matheny

RoyR. Kern

Georgia State University

See also: Psychoneuroimmunology

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