Academic journal article Social Work Research

Stress Exposure and Depression in Disadvantaged Women: The Protective Effects of Optimism and Perceived Control

Academic journal article Social Work Research

Stress Exposure and Depression in Disadvantaged Women: The Protective Effects of Optimism and Perceived Control

Article excerpt

In the present study, the authors predicted that the individual protective factors of optimism and perceived control over acute and chronic stressors would buffer the relations between acute and chronic stress exposure and severity of depression, controlling for household income, in a sample of financially disadvantaged women. Ninety-seven African American women and 97 white women with low incomes were recruited from an obstetric/gynecological chnic of a large urban hospital. They completed the following measures: optimism (Life Orientation Test), a perceived control scale, the Women's Stress Scale, and the Beck Depression Inventory--II. The results supported the predictions and are consistent with a risk and resilience theoretical perspective. Hierarchical regression analyses showed that among women experiencing a high number of exposures to acute and chronic stressors, optimism and perceived control were associated with less severe depression that fell within the nonclinical range of functioning. The authors did not observe any racial differences in the extent to which optimism and perceived control functioned as stress buffers. Implications for enhancing optimism and perceived control through culturally relevant social work practice are discussed.

KEY WORDS: acute stressors; chronic stressors; depression severity; optimism; perceived control


A considerable body of research over the past several decades has found a consistent association between exposure to stressful life events and chronic stressors on the one hand and depressed mood or major depression on the other hand (Kessler, 1997). For example, Grote and colleagues (in press) observed that African American and white women with low incomes who experienced a greater number of acute and chronic stressors were more likely to report depressed mood. Yet, individuals display wide variation in response to adversity or risk. According to a risk and resilience theoretical perspective, many people show resilient adaptation and do not develop psychological symptoms when exposed to stressful events or conditions (Luthar & Cicchetti, 2000). Risk and resilience researchers have been particularly interested in identifying protective factors that might modify the negative effects of adverse life circumstances on positive adjustment, not only in children and adolescents (Luther & Cicchetti),but also in adulthood (Jackson & Huang, 2000; Kaslow et al., 2002; Major, Richards, Cooper, Cozzarelli, & Zubek, 1998; Siefert, Heflin, Corcoran, & Williams, 2004). This study draws on theoretical and empirical studies of risk and protective factors for psychological disorders, which indicate that exposure to multiple risk factors can have negative cumulative effects on psychological well-being and that individual protective factors can buffer the adverse effects of risk exposure on depression severity.


To place the present work in context, a heuristic, integrative model is provided that is based on a synthesis of research from various disciplines and designed to illustrate how individuals are able to manage effectively in challenging environments (Figure 1). Not shown in the model are the reciprocal relationships among the various constructs and the associations between poverty or the interaction of poverty and race on the one hand and depression severity on the other hand. Decades of empirical research support various parts of the model. In this model, poverty by itself or the interaction of poverty and racial minority status, as well as exposure to acute and chronic stressors, constitute risk factors for depression. Poverty is predictive of increases in exposure to acute and chronic stressors (Belle, 1990) and is related to a twofold risk of major depressive disorder (Bruce, Takeuchi, & Leaf, 1991) or higher rates of depression (Siefert, Bowman, Heflin, Danziger, & Williams, 2000). …

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