More than 20 years of research confirms a positive association between trait negative affect (NA)—moody, nervous or easily stressed personality trait—and physical symptoms in patients. However, the meaning of this association remains unclear. In this study, the researchers examined both ‘bias' and ‘accuracy' in the relationship of trait NA to symptom reporting. Specifically, they assessed trait NA's relationship to two sets of symptoms in a sample of inner-city adults hospitalized for asthma. Participants were recruited by a review of daily consecutive admissions at a teaching hospital in New York City, and almost all of them had moderate or severe persistent asthma according to National Institute of Health asthma severity guidelines. The researchers assessed trait NA in the patients by using a six-item adjective list from the Profile of Mood States.
The study found that high levels of trait NA were associated with increased reports of both asthma and non-asthma symptoms. The analyses supported the researchers' main hypothesis that high trait NA would enhance asthma worry, which in turn would lead to an increased monitoring and reporting of asthma symptoms. However, the belief that individuals high in trait NA, unlike their low trait NA peers, would be more likely to report symptoms and unable to discern differences between symptoms of emotional distress and illness-specific symptoms is not substantiated by the data in this study. In fact, illness-related negative emotional reactions might be a source of expertise that motivates individuals to engage in a more detailed processing of somatic information by increasing self-awareness. The authors conclude that there is much to learn about how different types of mood states affect illness, dysfunction, health behaviors and beliefs about how best to sustain health.