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Personality Theories: An Introduction , Seventh Edition
Barbara Engler, Union County College
Adjustment to Threatening Events: A Theory of Cognitive Adaptation

      Many people fear being diagnosed with a life-threatening illness. However, Shelly Taylor (1983), a leader in the field of health psychology research and practice, explains that most people who are faced with personal illness achieve a quality of life or level of happiness equal to, or even surpassing, previous levels of satisfaction. Originally relying on responses from 78 women diagnosed with breast cancer and their family members, she theorized that adjusting to life-threatening events usually entails three processes: (1) searching for meaning, (2) regaining mastery, and (3) restoring self-esteem.
      During extensive interviews, women described changes that had occurred in their lives since their breast cancer diagnosis. In spite of popular beliefs that cancer patients change jobs, spouses, and seek self-indulgent adventures, major life changes rarely occurred. When asked to indicate if changes in their lives were positive or negative since cancer diagnosis, only 17% reported any negative changes in their lives. 53% reported only positive changes. Patients also tended to rate themselves as generally more well adjusted than before they had any signs of their cancer.
      Concerning the three components of her theory, Taylor explains that a search for meaning involves attempts at understanding why the event happened and what it means to the present. For example, 95% of the women interviewed offered some explanation for why their breast cancer had occurred, such as a stressful divorce or an injury to their breast. In addition, over half the women reported that the having cancer had caused them to reevaluate their lives.
      The second component of Taylor's theory, gaining a sense of mastery, usually involves personal beliefs that a person can control the illness or keep it from occurring again. For example, many of the breast cancer patients' efforts at control were entirely mental. The most common belief reported was that a positive attitude would keep the cancer from coming back. Women attempted to control their cancer by using meditation, imaging, self-hypnosis, and positive thinking. Women also reported that they made dietary changes and eliminated medications like birth control pills. Attempting to control side effects of treatment was another attempt at mastery reported by these women.
      The final component to the theory, restoring self-esteem, was managed directly by doing things like taking a cruise or making a major purchase, and indirectly by making social comparisons. Social comparisons means comparing one's personal circumstances with those of others for purposes of self-evaluation. Virtually all of these women thought they were doing as well as or somewhat better than other women coping with the same crisis. Even the women who were in the worst condition comforted themselves by the fact that they were not actively dying or were not in pain.
      For more information on the role of psychology in all elements of illness and injury, visit the award-winning website http://www.healthpsych.com.


      Taylor, S.E., 1983. Adjustment to threatening events: A theory of cognitive adaptation. American Psychologist, 38, 1161-1173.

Web Resources

For information on health psychology, go to http://www.healthpsych.com.

The Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation is dedicated to education and research on breast cancer: http://www.breastcancerinfo.com.

For more information on coping with cancer visit the American Cancer Society's home page at http://www.cancer.org.