Explanatory Styles and Their Role in Stress

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Your explanatory style affects your life in ways you may not realize. It can minimize your stress response or exacerbate it. It can keep you feeling safe in socially dangerous situations, or endangered in relatively safe ones. It can motivate you when you're faced with challenges or leave you feeling vulnerable to them.

Grounded in scientific method, explanatory style is defined by psychologists Gregory McClell Buchanan and Martin EP Seligman as “our tendency to offer similar explanations for different events.” Psychologists use the term "explanatory style" today to describe how people explain the events of their lives. When something happens, our explanatory style is part of how we process it, attach meaning to it, and assess it as a threat or a challenge in our lives. It's part self-talk and part self-perception, and it affects stress levels in multiple ways.

Aspects of Explanatory Style

There are three parameters (internality, stability, and globality) of how people can explain a situation to themselves. Each one can lean toward optimism or pessimism:

Stable vs. Unstable

This has to do with how you perceive the permanence of a situation. Is it changing across time or unchanging? Do you expect things to get better or worse, or stay exactly as they are for a long time? This can make a difference in how stressful something seems. If you are taking a stressful class in school, you at least know that the class will be over in a few months (whereas a stressful job may be something to deal with for years).

Global vs. Local

Is a stressor universal throughout your life (that is, pervasive)? Or is it specific to a part of your life? A good example of this is the feeling of having good or bad luck. If you feel yourself to be unlucky (bad luck pervades throughout your life), one negative experience may seem like an omen that more bad things are to come. Likewise, if you attribute a poor performance at work as being due to something global like a perceived inability to do the job well, one failure may seem like a sign of more failures to come. Someone who views one poor performance as being a sign of a bad day or lack of sleep—something more local and less global—will have an easier time shaking off one failure.

Internal vs. External

Do you see the cause of an event as within yourself (personalization) or outside yourself? If you are having a difficult day and you see it as being "your fault," you'll feel more stressed than if you see it as due to factors other than you. Likewise, when you are facing conflict with others, seeing the problem as being rooted in something that is "their problem" rather than "your fault" can help you to take things less personally and feel less hurt. 

If many people have the same complaints about you, it helps to look at what they are saying to assess whether there is something you may want to change. But generally, it helps to know that many of people's complaints can have more to do with them than with you.

Explanatory Style and Your Stress Levels

Explanatory styles affect how we perceive the world, which can affect our experience of stress as well as our reactions to our stressors. If we have a positive explanatory style, we may feel less stressed by challenging experiences because a positive explanatory style can minimize the perceived severity of stressors—they seem like they're not such a big deal, will be over soon, are not our fault, and will not necessarily recur.

Negative explanatory styles tend to create more stress in life and can make our stressors feel more threatening.

As you may have guessed, optimists tend to have more positive explanatory styles—ones that minimize stressful situations as unstable, local, and external and take credit for positive experiences as being more stable, global, and internal. 

Pessimists tend to see things in the opposite way, which can make stress seem like a bigger deal than it may need to be, and expands stressful feelings and even, research shows, symptoms of depression. Studies also show that people with negative explanatory styles may have more trouble recovering from heart transplants and other stressful life events.

Change Your Explanatory Style

Explanatory styles can be altered with attention and practice. You will need to learn to recognize your own cognitive distortions and practice cognitive restructuring techniques to change those distortions. Doing so can lead to a change in explanatory styles from a negative explanatory style to a more positive one.

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By Elizabeth Scott, PhD
Elizabeth Scott, PhD is an author, workshop leader, educator, and award-winning blogger on stress management, positive psychology, relationships, and emotional wellbeing.