Researchers at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, found an interesting interaction between optimism-pessimism and magnitude of stressors:
The researchers set out to examine the best method to dealing with life stressors and determine if positive outlook resulted in improved mental health. Studies thus far have yielded mixed results on this issue. While some say positive appraisals of stressful events can benefit mental health in the long run, others caution against not gauging threatening events accurately. The researchers decided to study the experiences of recently married couples over a sustained period of time.
To do this, the researchers measured the severity of controllable, negative situations (based on observer ratings), perceived marital satisfaction (based on the subjects’ own ratings), and depressive symptoms — each assessed at particular set points. Through two carefully controlled studies, they were able to reconcile the disparate conclusions of past research. The factor that appears to be responsible for this difference appears to be the severity of stress faced by the subject.
O’Mara and colleagues included a cost-benefit analysis within the structure of their research. They found that in the case of those subjects experiencing less stressful situations — as measured by the observers — a positive perspective lead to increased mental health over time. In more stressful instances, this same perspective was found to correlate with an increase in depressive symptoms over time. Lastly, if an initially positive appraisal of low-severity stressful events continued to be applied even as events increased in levels of stress, mental health was found to decline as well.
I don't think psychodynamically-oriented clinicians would be especially surprised by the findings. Denial in smaller doses can serve as a helpful day-to-day coping mechanism, but if denial escalates in tandem with increasing stress, it becomes increasingly maladaptive. In other words, little lies to ourselves smooth out the normal emotional bumps and help us stay the course; big lies to deal with big problems drive us off course.
Brain blogger continues:
So what’s the moral of the story? By all means, be optimistic and when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. But when the sh*t hits the fan, keep a cool head. It’s doing you no good to imagine rose petals are hitting your face.
Easier said than done. While these findings could certainly have direct applications in a short-term, cognitive-behavioral treatment with people experiencing high-stress situations, reorganizing a dynamic, flexible, defensive system to respond differentially to stressors over the long-haul requires more than conscious instruction and training. Much of our emotional life and behavior is organized by unconscious, selected patterns of adaptation that are difficult if not impossible to override with conscious instruction and practice.