Carnegie Mellon University

It's All in Your Head

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The Mind-Body Connection

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There may be more than you think to the phrase "it's all in your head." Michael Scheier, head of Carnegie Mellon's Department of Psychology and co-director of the Pittsburgh Mind-Body Center, has spent years exploring the mind-body connection.

"I study how social and personality factors impact physical health," he explained.

Scheier has focused much of his work on optimism and pessimism, studying how these personality traits affect wellness. He has examined areas including surgical recovery time and cancer mortality, finding good evidence that optimism is indeed beneficial to our health.

Delving deeper into why this should be the case, Scheier discovered that optimists facing adversity use very different coping mechanisms than their pessimistic counterparts. Optimists employ problem-focused coping by accepting reality and moving toward finding solutions. Pessimists use avoidant-coping strategies, like minimizing or denying.

Ultimately, Scheier hopes to translate his growing knowledge into improving public health outcomes.

"In terms of changing, it might be hard to alter one's psychological orientation to life," Scheier said. "It might be easier to focus on the maladaptive behaviors and coping strategies used by pessimists and try to develop programs that will change those."

Scheier compares the risk of these personality traits to more tangible health risks like high cholesterol increasing the incidence of heart disease.

He explained, "It's useful to know one's at risk, so we can monitor what's happening to that person more closely and intervene if we have to."

Not surprisingly, Scheier's work often involves the cooperation of colleagues in diverse fields such as statistics, human-computer interaction, medicine, even philosophy. He feels fortunate to be at Carnegie Mellon.

"This work is, by definition, at the border of various disciplines," he said. "If that kind of work weren't accepted and promoted and nurtured as it is at CMU, it would be very, very hard to work."

Scheier is continuing to explore uncharted territory. His future work is challenging the current wisdom that problem-focused coping is always the most adaptive, or in other words, one should never give up trying to work through problems.

"I'm becoming very interested in the process of disengaging from unattainable goals and looking to see how that relates to health," Scheier said. "It looks like people who are able to give up appropriately are healthier."

Related Links: Michael's Bio  |  Pittsburgh Mind-Body Center  |  Dept of Psychology