A Closer Look The Role of Positive Emotions in Coping with Stress
The vast majority of the research on personality and health focuses on negative emotions and how they contribute to stress and illness. However, in recent years, some researchers have taken an interest in the positive emotions, and positive appraisals, as well as how these can have a protective function (for a review, see Tedeschi, Park, & Calhoun, 1998). The general hypothesis is that positive emotions and positive appraisals may lead to a lowered impact of stress on health (Lyubomirsky, 2001).
Several decades ago, Lazarus, Kanner, and Folkman (1980) speculated that positive emotions played three important roles in the stress process:
(1) they may sustain coping efforts,
(2) they may provide a break from stress, and (3) they may give people time and opportunity to restore depleted resources, including the restoration of social relationships. However, no one in the health psychology research area gave serious attention to these ideas for almost two decades.
Recently, psychologist Barbara Fredrickson has led the way in the search for the effects of positive emotions on stress and illness. She has proposed a "broaden and build model" of positive emotions, suggesting that positive emotions broaden the scope of attention, cognition, and action. This helps the person see more options in stressful situations, think about alternatives, and try different ways of coping with the stress. The "build" part of her model suggests that positive emotions help a person build up reserves of energy, as well as build up social resources, especially in terms of how positive emotions help a person build a social support network. She proposes that positive emotions are important in facilitating adaptive coping and adjustment to stress (Fredrickson, 1998, 2000). In experimental research, Fredrickson and Levenson (1998) found that the experience of positive emotions, following a period of acute stress, facilitated recovery from that stress. Specifically, these researchers examined cardiovascular reactivity to anxiety and threat manipulations, and they found that the participants who underwent a positive emotion following this stress showed faster heart rate and blood pressure recovery than did the participants who did not get the positive mood induction.
Psychologists Susan Folkman and Judith Moskowitz (2000) have built on Fredrickson's ideas and have suggested several important mechanisms in determining whether people will experience positive emotions during periods of severe stress. They give examples of these positive coping mechanisms from their study of gay men who were caregivers of partners dying from AIDS. Caring for someone with a chronic debilitating disease, such as AIDS or Alzheimer's disease, can be extremely stressful and often leads the caregiver to suffer physical costs from the stress and strain. From their study of such caregivers, Folkman and Moskowitz have identified three coping mechanisms that are capable of generating positive emotion during stress, as opposed to coping strategies that mainly provide relief from negative emotions.
The first positive emotion coping strategy is called positive reappraisal, a cognitive process whereby a person focuses on the good in what is happening or has happened. Forms of this positive coping strategy include seeing opportunities for personal growth and seeing how one's own efforts can benefit other people. By changing how they interpret what is happening to them, people actually change the meaning of situations such that the adversity, in fact, gives them strength. In their study of AIDS caregivers, Folkman and Moskowitz found that the caregivers who were able to positively reappraise the situation (e.g., "I will emerge from this challenge a stronger and better person") showed better adjustment both during caregiv-ing and even after the death of their partners (Moskowitz et al., 1996).
Folkman and Moskowitz caution that not all forms of positive reappraisal are adaptive. For example, if one fails at a goal, then devalues that goal, this may not lead to positive emotions. For example, imagine you want to go to Harvard Law School, but your application is rejected. You may cognitively reappraise the situation by saying, "Harvard Law School is really not so good." By lessening the significance of the goal, you may not feel as negative, but it does not necessarily produce happiness or the other positive emotions that Folkman and Moskowitz are talking about.
The second positive coping strategy identified by Folkman et al. (1997) is problem-focused coping, using thoughts and behaviors to manage or solve the underlying cause of the stress. It has typically been assumed that this strategy is useful in situations in which a person has some control over the outcomes. However, Folkman and Moskowitz note how this strategy can be useful in situations that, on the surface, appear uncontrollable. In the AIDS caregiver study, many of the caregivers were caring for partners who were dying, a situation that could not be stopped, reversed, or even slowed. However, even in these seemingly uncontrollable conditions, some caregivers were able to focus on the things they could control. For example, many created "to-do" lists of little things, such as getting prescriptions filled, administering medications, and changing their partners' bed linens. Keeping such lists, and ticking off the completed items, gave the caregivers opportunities to feel effective and in control in an otherwise overwhelming situation. And many reported that positive emotions accompanied such accomplishments, even minor ones. Many caregivers reported feeling energized and focused by their problem-directed actions. And they experienced the gratitude from their partners and others when tasks were completed. In short, focusing on solving problems, even little ones, can give a person a positive sense of control even in the most stressful and uncontrollable circumstances.
The third positive coping mechanism is called creating positive events and is defined as creating a positive time-out from the stress. This can be done in a number of ways. Often, all it takes is to pause and reflect on something positive, such as a compliment received, a plea sing or humorous memory, or a sunset. These sorts of time-outs can give a person a momentary respite from the chronic stress. Many of the AIDS caregivers took time to remember positive events or to plan positive events, such as taking their partners for scenic drives. Some tried to create positive events by infusing neutral events with positive meaning, trying to capture a few moments of happiness during an otherwise very stressful time. Some of the caregivers reported using humor to find some positive relief. It has long been thought that humor can be a tension reducer and that it may contribute to mental and physical health (Menninger, 1963). Folkman and Moskowitz note that humor can have the added benefit of generating positive emotional moments even during the darkest periods of stress. In this way, humor and positive emotions can provide a respite from stress and even help build and strengthen social bonds.
This focus on positive emotions and their role in health and illness is new, and the research is in very early stages. Many of the early findings are intriguing but also raise new questions for research. For example, do different kinds of positive emotions—such as excitement, happiness, or contentment— play different roles in the stress process? Are the positive emotions most helpful in coping with particular kinds of stress? For example, are positive emotions more helpful in chronic, long-term stress or in shorter, acute stress? And, finally, of particular interest to personality psychologists are questions about differences between people in the ability to generate positive emotions while coping with stress (Affleck & Tennen, 1996). Who are the people who can generate humor, for example, during periods of coping? Can people be taught different strategies for using positive emotions to cope? Are specific personality traits, such as extraversion or optimism, uniquely related to positive emotion coping styles? These important questions point the way for the personality researchers of the future, who will undertake the necessary studies to understand why it is that some people manage to survive disaster, hardship, and misfortune with some degree of positivity.
global, and internal causes. However , a slightly dif ferent definition of optimism i offered by Scheier and Carver (1985; Carver & Scheier , 2000). These researchers emphasize dispositional optimism as the expectation that good events will be plentiful in the future, and that bad events will be rare in the future. For example, optimists are likely to believe that they will achieve success in most areas of their lives. This definition emphasizes not explanatory style, but expectations for the future
Another concept related to optimism, called self-efficac , was developed by Bandura (1986). As discussed in Chapter 12, self-ef ficacy is the belief that one ca do the behaviors necessary to achieve a desired outcome. Self-ef ficacy also is the con fidence one has in one s ability to perform the actions needed to achieve a specifi outcome. For example, someone' s belief and confidence that he or she can clim Mt. Everest—this subjective feeling, the positive expectation about performing the behaviors necessary to climb the mountain—is self-ef ficac .
Finally, a fourth concept related to optimism concerns perceptions of risk. Imagine being asked to estimate the probability of various events happening to you, using a scale from 0 to 100; 0 means "it will never happen to me" and 100 means "it is certain to happen to me." The events you are asked to estimate are such things as dying in a plane crash, being diagnosed with cancer , having a heart attack, and being hit by lightning. Optimists perceive that they are at lower risk for such negative events than the average person is. What is interesting, however , is that most people generally underestimate their risks, with the average person rating his or her risk as below what is the true probability . This has been referred to as the optimistic bias, and it may actually lead people in general to ignore or minimize the risks inherent in life or to take more risks than they should. Nevertheless, people dif fer dramatically from each other in their perceptions of the risks associated with everyday life, with pessimistic persons overestimating the risks, relative to optimistic persons.
Was this article helpful?
EFT stands for Emotional Freedom Technique. It works to free the user of both physical and emotional pain and relieve chronic conditions by healing the physical responses our bodies make after we've been hurt or experienced pain. While some people do not carry the effects of these experiences, others have bodies that hold onto these memories, which affect the way the body works. Because it is a free and fast technique, even if you are not one hundred percent committed to whether it works or not, it is still worth giving it a shot and seeing if there is any improvement.