Tom ran out of gas on a drive with his family. His reaction was to fume and berate his wife for not filling up the day before. This is not an atypical reaction to stress. Some people might curse the car or be self-critical for not checking the gas gauge beforehand. Still others might view it all philosophically as an oversight that's nobody's fault.
The style we adopt in handling frustration depends on two things: our basic, inborn temperament, and the reaction patterns we learn from others. We canít alter the former, but as far as social learning goes, we do have some degree of control. The significant people we grow up with profoundly influence how we handle stress. Thus, the self-defeating coping pattern used by a parent can be assimilated by a child and eventually result in that child's breakdown of mind and/or body.
Since we all face stress, it wouldn't reveal much about a person to ask, "Are you ever (or how often are you) under stress?" The more telling question is: "How do you deal with stress?" Do people who use a stress-coping style like Tom's have a tendency to develop illness prematurely?
The answer may come from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. In an ongoing study, Dr. Caroline Thomas and her associates have followed the lives of 1,337 students who attended the university between 1948 and 1964. The graduates have been given yearly questionnaires that ask about their lifestyles, and include questions about their eating, drinking, and sleeping patterns. Thus far the main finding, as subjects approach their senior years, is that their present state of health is related to how they reacted to stress during their earlier days. Dr. Thomas published a list of stress-coping behaviors in the Journal of Chronic Diseases that identified those headed for early illness.
If youíve ever wondered whether your way of dealing with stress could harm your health, take the following quiz. It's based on Dr. Thomas's list.
Will Your Stress Make You Sick?
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