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Stress Management

Sense of Control Eases Physical Consequences During Stress

"Investigators have proposed that having control of... life events can reduce an individual’s cardiovascular disease risk," said Suzanne E. Weinstein, Ph.D., of Pennsylvania State University.

Previous research suggests that more cardiovascular responses to stressful events may help form the link between low control and high risk by damaging arterial walls and encouragingatherosclerosis, according to Weinstein.

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. Short blasts of a mildly annoying noise were sent through the students’ headphones as they played the game. About half the players were told that better performance on the game would reduce the number of noises they heard and the remaining players were told that the noises were random.

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

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

The results indicate that the students who were "in control" experienced less stress on their hearts and circulatory systems than their "out-of-control" counterparts.

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

All players received the same number of noise blasts, timed to follow unsuccessful catches. However, pre- and post-game testing showed that the students’ perceptions of how much control they had matched what researchers told them, even after they played the game, the findings revealed.

The findings may provide insight into the relationship between control and cardiovascular response; however, "they do not directly address the relationship between control and cardiovascular disease," Weinstein said.

In addition, the findings do not indicate that more control — either real or perceived — would produce similar effects in all situations, she added.

While this experiment tested the effects of short-term control during a four-minute game, long-term control may not have the same effect on cardiovascular responses, the researchers noted. 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, they said.

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