Age, Perception of Control, and Self-Concept Influence Sensitivity to Stress

DistressPsychological distress has been associated with a number of aversive conditions, including headaches, upset stomach, back pain, insomnia, changes in blood sugar, and cardiovascular disease.

Research published in the scientific journal Psychology and Aging in 2010 has identified three factors that influence one’s sensitivity to daily stressors.

These three factors are age, perception of control, and self-concept differentiation.

Perception of control refers to beliefs regarding one’s ability to control the outcome of a situation.

Self-concept differentiation, which is often abbreviated as SCD, “reflects the extent to which individuals see themselves differently across different roles and domains of life.”

For example, someone with a high degree of self-concept differentiation would perceive their personality as being much different at work than at home. Someone with a low degree of self-concept differentiation, on the other hand, would perceive their personality as being relatively the same, regardless of their social role.

The study, which was authored by Elizabeth L. Hay and Manfred Diehl of Colorado State University, investigated the influence of age, perceptions of control, and self-concept differentiation on 239 participant’s reactivity to daily stressors.

The participants in this study first completed a questionnaire to assess their level of self-concept differentiation and were then interviewed over the phone for 30 consecutive days. The telephone interviews were used to measure the amount of stressors that the participants had experienced during the day.

In addition to completing the telephone interview, the participants also recorded their perceptions of control, reported psychological distress, and reported physical symptoms, such as backaches and nausea, in a daily diary.

The study found that being young was associated with increased sensitivity to stress and was also slightly associated with feeling less in control.

Although some studies have found that having a high degree of self-concept differentiation could have positive consequences, the majority of research has found self-concept differentiation to be maladaptive. Hay and Diehl’s study add to the latter body of research by finding that higher levels of self-concept differentiation are associated with higher levels of psychological distress.

Higher levels of feeling in control, in contrast, were associated with lower levels of psychological distress.

“Overall, our findings are consistent with the general perspective that being younger, having a more incoherent self-concept (i.e. high SCD), and perceiving less control are associated with heightened reactivity to stress,” says Hay and Diehl.

Hay and Diehl hope their findings will help identify and treat individuals who are vulnerable to chronic stress.


Hay, E.L. & Diehl, M. (2010). Reactivity to daily stressors in adulthood: the importance of stressor type in characterizing risk factors. Psychology and Aging, Vol. 25, No. 1: 118-131.

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