INSIDE Chico State
0 November 2, 2000
Volume 31 Number 6
  A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico




Provost's Corner


Thriving Under Pressure


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Thriving Under Pressure

Walt Schafer, Sociology
Walt Schafer, Sociology

(Photo by Ian Gilmore)

The Harsh Truth About Type A's

During the past quarter century, hundreds of studies have been published on the nature, prevalence, and effects of the Type A personality pattern. As a result, "Type A" is a rare example of a term that has moved from obscure academic journals to mainstream language.

What exactly is Type A? The Type A personality pattern is characterized by a never-ending struggle to accomplish more than time permits, and by a generalized orientation of anger, irritability, and impatience -- also known as "free-floating hostility." The Type B pattern is the relative absence of these qualities. Type A and Type B are really ends of a continuum, rather than either-or patterns. Most of us are a mixture of the two.

The Type A pattern can remain latent or become overt, depending upon the social situation. If a person with Type A tendencies lives or works in a culture, organization, or workgroup that is relatively easygoing, the Type A person may seldom display Type A qualities. The same person in a frenetic setting is much more likely to show Type A personality traits.

Considerable research evidence exists that the greater the Type A tendencies, the worse the quality of life. My own study several years ago of nearly 1,200 participants in my community class at Enloe Hospital (Reducing Perfectionism, Irritability, and Hurry Sickness) revealed that at the outset of the class, those with high Type A scores were significantly more likely to display more distress symptoms, depression, emotional tension, anxious reactivity, and time-related stress; less satisfaction with life, health, job, and family; and less internal control, self-esteem, vitality/energy, and happiness.

Most research on the health effects of Type A have focused on coronary artery disease, heart attacks, and cardiac-related mortality. But recent studies have examined the health effects of specific components of Type A. It has been repeatedly found that the most toxic, health-damaging component is hostility. In fact, researchers have found that, even in the absence of other Type A qualities, hostility harms health -- not only for the targets of one's hostility but for self. Studies show, for example, that the higher the hostility, the greater the likelihood of having blocked coronary arteries, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and high LDL cholesterol (the bad kind), and the greater the chance of dying prematurely from heart disease and other causes. One study showed a seven-times higher all-cause mortality rate over a 25-year period among high-hostility physicians compared with low-hostility doctors. My own studies among Chico State students duplicate the outcomes of the Enloe study and show that hostile students are significantly more likely to report high rates of personal distress symptoms.

To personalize this discussion, ask yourself how you react to

  • loud stereos or slow store clerks
  • an idiot driver who cuts you off or goes 25 mph in a 40-mph zone
  • a partner who complains you forgot to do something after a busy day
  • a co-worker who persists with an irritating habit

Redford Williams, a leading medical scholar on the health-harming effects of hostility, notes that hostile people approach these types of situations in three dysfunctional ways: a cynical attitude, frequently and easily aroused anger feelings, and a tendency to display these anger feelings in overt language or acts.

This triad constitutes what Williams calls "the hostile heart." This tendency is not genetic, but is learned and developed. Therefore, it is changeable. To begin, consider Williams' notion of the trusting heart:

The trusting heart believes in the basic goodness of humankind, that most people will be fair and kind in relationships with others. Having such beliefs, the trusting heart is slow to anger. Not seeking out evil in others, not expecting the worst of them, the trusting heart expects mainly good from others and, more often than not, finds it. As a result, the trusting heart spends little time feeling resentful, irritable, and angry.... Just as our research has shown that the hostile heart is at risk of premature death and disease, it also can reassure us the trusting heart appears protected against these outcomes.

Walt Schafer, Sociology and Social Work, is the author of Stress Management for Wellness, ed. 4.


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