Sense of control eases physical toll of stressful situation

August 31, 2002

Believing that you have control over a moderately stressful situation may make it less potentially damaging to your heart and circulatory system, a new study suggests.

"Investigators have proposed that having control of ... life events can reduce an individual's cardiovascular disease risk," explains lead author Suzanne E. Weinstein, Ph.D., of Pennsylvania State University, writing in the journal Psychophysiology. Previous research, she notes, suggests that more exaggerated cardiovascular responses to stressful events may help forge the link between low control and high risk by damaging arterial walls and encouraging atherosclerosis.

To test the connection between control and the magnitude of cardiovascular response, Weinstein and her colleagues asked 32 undergraduate students to play a video game of catch. As the students played, they received short blasts of a mildly annoying noise through headphones. About half the players were told that better performance on the game would reduce the number of noises; the remaining players were told that the blasts were random.

The results of cardiovascular monitoring during the games provide what Weinstein deems "perhaps the most straightforward evidence to date" for the theory that control over an undesirable stimulus while performing a task reduces its negative effects on the cardiovascular system.

Those students who were led to believe that they could reduce the number of annoying sounds by making more catches experienced smaller increases in systolic blood pressure and total peripheral resistance to blood flow than those who believed they could not control the noise.

Both measures indicate that the students who were supposedly "in control" experienced less stress on their hearts and circulatory systems than did their presumably "out-of-control" counterparts, even though they were performing an identical task.

The results also indicate, Weinstein notes, that only an illusion of control was required to buffer cardiovascular response to what the researchers call a "mildly aversive stimulus."

In reality, all players received the same number of noise blasts, timed to follow unsuccessful catches. Yet pre- and post-game testing revealed that students' perceptions of how much control they had matched what the researchers told them -- even after they played the game.

Although the findings may provide valuable insight into the relationship between control and cardiovascular response, Weinstein cautions that "they do not directly address the relationship between control and cardiovascular disease." Nor do they indicate that more control -- either real or perceived -- would produce similar effects in all situations.

For one thing, they researchers observe, this experiment tested the effects of short-term control during a four-minute game; long-term control may not have the same buffering effect on cardiovascular responses. Also, previous research indicates that control does not necessarily confer cardiovascular protection when the stimuli are far more unpleasant or the task is far more difficult than in the present study.
Funding for the study was provided by Pennsylvania State University and the National Institutes of Health.

Health Behavior News Service: (202) 387-2829 or
Interviews: Contact Andrea Messer at (814) 865-9481 or
Psychophysiology: Contact Gregory A. Miller, Ph.D., at (217) 333-6312.

Center for Advancing Health

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