A large body of research has also looked at the relationship between self-efficacy beliefs and health. In healthy people, a strong sense of self-efficacy can help them adopt a lifestyle that promotes wellness and prevents disease. In people with a chronic illness, self-efficacy beliefs can help them manage pain and other symptoms, reduce the stress associated with being ill, and improve their overall quality of life.
In a 2002 article, Bandura explained the benefits for health promotion and disease prevention: "By managing their health habits, people can live longer, healthier, and slow the process of aging. To stay healthy, people should exercise, refrain from smoking, reduce the amount of dietary fat, keep blood pressure down, and develop effective ways of coping with stressors." Of course, most people know about the benefits of healthy lifestyle habits. Turning that knowledge into action is not always easy, though. High perceived self-efficacy helps people have the confidence to make needed changes and the determination to stick with them.
One interesting line of research has looked at public health messages that are aimed at getting people to make healthy lifestyle changes. There are several possible approaches: giving people factual information, instilling fear, changing people's perception of the risks involved, or enhancing people's perceived self-efficacy. Research has shown that the most effective messages increase people's belief that they have some control over their own health. Scare tactics, on the other hand, do not seem to work as well.
Self-efficacy beliefs also may affect health by influencing how people respond to potentially stressful situations. When someone is faced with a threat—real or imagined, psychological or physical—the threat sets off an alarm in the person's brain, which reacts by preparing the body for defensive action. The pulse quickens, breathing deepens, the senses become sharper, and the muscles tense as the person prepares to fight or flee. In a real emergency, this physiological stress response can be a literal lifesaver. If the response continues over a long period of time, however, it can take a toll on the body, increasing the risk of depression, heart attack, stroke, various aches and pains, and perhaps even cancer. This kind of chronic stress can occur when people have trouble coping with long-term pressures, such as family conflicts, work or school demands, money problems, and the like.
Social-cognitive theory views stress as the result of a perceived inability to have any control over a threatening situation. If people believe they can deal effectively with a situation, it does not lead to stress. It is only when people believe they cannot control an unpleasant situation that they get stressed out by it. Therefore, the higher people's sense of self-efficacy, the less stress they are likely to feel, and fewer stress-related medical problems they are apt to develop.
For people who are already ill, a strong sense of self-efficacy can help them better manage their symptoms and stick to their treatment plan. Studies have shown benefits from perceived self-efficacy in a wide range of medical situations, such as recovering from a heart attack, coping with cancer, taking medication as prescribed, sticking to a rehabilitation program, reducing cholesterol in the diet, controlling arthritis pain, managing diabetes, and eliminating muscle tension headaches.
Such benefits are particularly relevant today, when the burden of chronic disease is heavier than at any other time in history. People are living longer than ever, but this also means that more people are developing age-related chronic illnesses, such as heart disease, osteoarthritis, type 2 diabetes, and cancer. These illnesses are among the most common and costly—but also most preventable—of all medical conditions.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, chronic diseases now cause major limitations in activity for more than one out of every 10 Americans. They also account for more than 75% of all medical care costs in the United States. Anything that can reduce this burden is tremendously helpful to individual patients, their families, and society at large. High perceived self-efficacy is one factor that seems to help, both by promoting health and by giving people the confidence they need to cope with a disease.
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