According to pshycologists, believing that one can control a stressful situation makes it easier on your heart and circulation. Exposure to a stressful situation is potentially damaging to health because it increases blood pressure and resistance to blood flow. Over time, these responses may accumulate to increase the risk of heart disease. But the level of the physiological response to stress is moderated by many psychological factors, such as personality and attitude.
Researchers at Pennsylvania State University find that the belief you can control a situation reduces the stress response. A group of 30 students played a game of video 'catch' - which simulates a stress situation. The game was accompanied by bursts of annoying noise.
Half the students were told that they could reduce the frequency of the bursts by doing better at the game. The rest were told that they could do nothing about the noise. The blood pressure and resistance to blood flow rose less in the group that believed they had control.
In reality, the frequency of noise bursts was the same for both groups - but the illusion of control seemed to be important. The researchers caution that it's not yet clear how to relate this small lab study to stress exposure in everyday life. But it's a clear demonstration that control - rather than helplessness - could be a vital component in the way we handle stressful situations.