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Self-Complexity Helps Take Sting From Stress

December 19, 1987|From Times Wire Services

Stress, the bane of many people's existence, can be a pain in the neck--or back, or stomach or mind. However, the more intricate you consider yourself, the more resistant you will be to the negative effects of life's ups and downs.

Yale psychologist Patricia W. Linville has dubbed this stress buster "self-complexity." She has found that people high in this trait seem to have an extra line of defense against illness and depression during periods of high stress.

Linville showed more than 100 college students a set of 33 cards, each listing a feature--such as "outgoing," "affectionate" and "lazy"--that they could use to describe themselves. The students sorted the cards into as many piles as they felt adequately represented different aspects of themselves. The more "self-aspects," or important ways in which students saw themselves, and the more distinct these were from one another, the higher the self-complexity score.

Linville found that students who were high in self-complexity were less likely than those low in this trait to get depressed and to report ailments such as the flu, backaches, headaches and menstrual cramps when they felt stressed.

How does self-complexity work against stress? A stressful event begins causing trouble by infiltrating a person's most important self-aspects. "A tennis player who has just lost an important match is likely to feel dejected," Linville says. "These negative feelings are likely to become associated with this person's 'tennis player' self-aspect."

This feeling of dejection, however, won't spill over and color the meaning of the individual's other self-aspects if they are both numerous and different from one another. In other words, if you are under stress and are high in self-complexity, "you have these uncontaminated areas of your life that can act as buffers," Linville says.

Unfortunately, there may not be an easy, two-week plan to resist stress by getting more "complex." Linville speculates that self-complexity develops with age and experience, and also when one's increasingly busy life requires more, and more varied, self-aspects.

Still, Linville believes that knowing something about the effects of self-complexity may help professionals identify and treat people who are prone to depression or illness in situations of high stress. Helping such people clarify their different self-aspects and focus on those that make them happy may help shield them from the effects of stressful situations.

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