Sense of control eases physical toll of stressful situation
- Release Date: Aug. 31, 2002
SENSE OF CONTROL EASES PHYSICAL TOLL OF STRESSFUL SITUATION
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
"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
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
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.
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