Do highly stressed or angry people get more ulcers and backaches? Maybe, maybe not. People who develop these problems have a wide range of personalities and habits; some are very stressed, others are calm and contented.
What about cancer and heart disease? Some studies suggest that pessimists or introverts are at higher risk, others that optimists or extroverts are no better off. Research into the relationship between personality traits and disease has created a lot of shifting ground over the years.
Why the confusion?
First, personality types are constructs by researchers and don’t necessarily correlate well with the real world. What’s more, dozens of overlapping traits, in various permutations, have been studied. There are countless ways to measure them, plus many theories of personality that use different terms and concepts. Most people don’t fit neatly into one type and may change over time. And just because there may be a link between a personality trait and a disease doesn’t mean that one is causing the other.
From A to D
It’s only human to look for patterns. Throughout history, thinkers—from Hippocrates to Jung—have tried to categorize people by character types. But only in recent decades have health-related personality types been developed.
The first, naturally enough, was Type A. The theory that people with this personality—aggressive, competitive, tense, impatient and often hostile—are at higher risk for heart disease emerged from studies of men. For years this was treated as gospel, but most subsequent research did not confirm the initial findings, especially when women were included.
Still, certain Type A traits—chronic hostility/anger and cynicism/mistrust—may be linked to heart disease. In 2010, for example, an English review of studies concluded that anger and hostility predict heart disease in healthy people and poor prognosis in cardiac patients. Though it’s not clear what the connection is, perhaps hostile/mistrustful people adopt a "why bother” attitude and thus fail to take care of their health.
Type Bs are the anti-Type As—calm, cheery, cooperative, patient, easy-going folks who aren’t hostile and driven. This may make you a more pleasant person, but there’s no clear evidence it will keep you healthy.
It was once thought that the Type C personality—passive, trying to please everyone and often feeling helpless or hopeless—increases the risk of cancer. That may be true if, when presented with bad medical news, such people accept their fate and don’t follow through with treatment or even go to a doctor. It’s tempting to think that these traits would not be conducive to good health, but no solid evidence has emerged to support the proposed link to cancer.
The newest folks on the hot seat are Type Ds—as in distressed—who are irritable, anxious and worried, with a doom-and-gloom view of the world. They tend to be socially inhibited, insecure and easily stressed out. Several studies have implicated Type D in an array of cardiovascular risk factors and poor overall health. But, of course, in a few years the concept of Type D may seem as outmoded as Types A through C now seem.
Don’t get typecast
If you can’t deal well with stress, are frequently anxious and/or are unable to see out support from friends and family, talk to your doctor about getting counseling. If you’re chronically angry and hostile, consider anger-management programs; mindfulness meditation classes may also help you better manage your reactions.
Rather than labeling yourself with a personality type, seek help with those aspects of your personality and behaviors that are preventing you from dealing effectively with your health and well-being.