Self-Control and Daily Stress

By Indigo Eisendrath, Kenyon ’17

A new study on adolescents found that the trait self-control can predict and influence the effects of daily stress.

Those with high levels of self-control report fewer incidences of daily stressors, express less severe stress, and are better able to cope with stress. Individuals with higher self-control reported greater mindfulness in response to daily stress compared to those with less self-control.

Studying the trait self-control is based on a dual-process model, which breaks self-control into two subtypes, behaviors that are automatic processes and those that are reflective mental processes (Strack & Deutsch, 2004). Automatic processes involve no external thought, they “can be carried out with little to no conscious awareness” (Galla & Wood, 2015, p. 70). Reflective mental processes involve higher mental processing and they are consciously used to influence behaviors and actions.

Studies suggest that there are three different links between self-control and exposure to daily stress. The first is supported by Boger and Zuckerman’s (1995) model of differential exposure, stating that, “self-control will directly predict a lower number of daily stressful events” (p. 70). Therefore, adolescents with greater self-control could be better at avoiding stressful situations than those with lower levels of self-control.

The second link is that adolescents with greater levels of self-control could be better at “preventing automatic impulses from turning into a stressful encounter” (p. 70). This is possible because more controlled individuals may be more of situational cues and their surroundings.

Lastly, because individuals respond and perceive situations differently, it is possible that, “self-control would buffer the effects of mindlessness on stress appraisals” (p. 71). This study suspected that more mindless, or absentminded adolescents would be more likely to experience higher levels of daily stress, especially among adolescents with lower self-control. This could also be related to more mindful adolescents being more attentive to situations compared to mindless individuals.

The participants, 129 ninth-grade students from the Northeast, reported every day for fourteen days on daily stressful events, severity of stress, daily mood, reappraisal coping (a strategy for handling emotional situations in a controlled and adaptive manner), and daily mindlessness. Items for daily stressors included a list of fourteen items related to events or situations that can cause daily stress, including conflict stress, such as an argument with a parent, overload stress, for example a large amount of school work, and demand stress, when others expectations for you causes stress. From those three categories of stress, participants rated the severity of stress using Galvan and McGlennen’s (2011) previous research identified five items, “problems with parents, problems at school, problems with friends/peers, demands by family, and academic demands or challenges” (Galla & Wood, 2015, p. 73). These items and situations provided the basis for daily reporting.

Galla and Wood’s study found that self-control predicted exposure and reactivity to daily stress. Adolescents with high levels of self-control experienced and reported fewer stressful events daily compared to those with lower self-control. This is consistent with previous research (Hoffman et al., 2005) suggesting that “self-control may be associated with anticipatory regulation of temptation,” (Galla & Wood, 2015, p. 79). This indicates that more self-controlled individuals would be more likely to avoid stressful events.

Adolescents with “higher trait self-control may enjoy less persistent negative mood due to the fact that they perceive their lives to be less overwhelming, unpredictable, and uncontrollable because they are less prone to involuntary stress responses” (p. 79). Therefore, with increased control, individuals view events as less stressful and have less mindlessness. While self-control did not reduce the effects of stress on negative emotion, it did reduce emotional reactions to stress using reappraisal coping strategies. Thus, more self-control is associated with adaptive practices for combatting stress.

This study was limited in its ability to draw directional and causal claims in terms exposure to and awareness of stress and the role of self-control on daily stress because of the within day study design. Measures such as mood had low within subject reliability because it is a factor that ranges greatly among an individual each day. Additionally, the results relied solely upon Self Data measures, which can allow for bias and inaccurate reporting. Therefore, future research should include Informant Data, which would include information from a parent or close friend. This could provide an additional viewpoint on factors such as perceived levels of stress and mood, which the subject might not report accurately.

This study did, however, provide significant information on the trait self-control. Adolescents with greater self-control experienced fewer stressors, responded less strongly to daily stress, and possessed better coping skills that allowed them to better manage stress.

References

Bolger, N., & Zuckerman, A. (1995). A framework for studying personality in the stress process. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69, 890-902.

Galla, B. M., & Wood, J. J. (2015). Trait self-control predicts adolescents’ exposure and reactivity to daily stressful events. Journal of Personality, 83, 69-83.

Galvin, A., & McGlennen, K. M. (2011). Daily stress increases risky decision-making in adolescents: A preliminary study. Developmental Psychobiology, 54, 433-440.

Strack, F., & Deutsch, R. (2004). Reflective and impulsive determinants of social behavior. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 8, 220-247.

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