Scientists have confirmed what psychologists and philosophers have long believed: It’s not stressful situations themselves that cause health problems, but rather how well people respond to them that determines whether they will suffer negative health consequences.
Penn State researchers who tracked the health effects of stress on nearly 2,000 individuals found that those who were most upset by daily stressors — and continued to dwell on them after they had passed — were more likely to suffer from chronic health problems, including pain, arthritis, and cardiovascular problems as much as 10 years later.
The findings, published online in the journal Annals of Behavioral Medicine, suggest developing better ways of coping with the inevitable stresses of daily life can pay significant health dividends.
"Our research shows that how you react to what happens in your life today predicts your chronic health conditions and 10 years in the future, independent of your current health and your future stress," said researcher David Almeida, professor of human development and family studies.
"For example, if you have a lot of work to do today and you are really grumpy because of it, then you are more likely to suffer negative health consequences 10 years from now than someone who also has a lot of work to do today, but doesn't let it bother her."
To reach their conclusions, Almeida and colleagues tracked the experiences of a group of people who are participating in what is known as the MIDUS study — short for Midlife in the United States — a long-running national study of health and wellbeing funded by the National Institute on Aging.
The researchers surveyed 2,000 individuals on eight consecutive nights about what had happened to them in the previous 24 hours. They asked the participants questions about their moods, physical health symptoms, their productivity, and the stressful events they had experienced, such as being stuck in traffic, having an argument, or taking care of a sick child. The surveys were conducted in 1995 and repeated in 2005.
The researchers also collected saliva samples from the individuals to determine amounts of the stress hormone, cortisol, in their blood. They then linked the information they collected to data from the larger MIDUS study, including the participants' demographic information, their chronic health conditions, their personalities, and their social networks.
The team found that people who become upset by daily stressors and continue to dwell on them were more likely to suffer from chronic health problems as much as a decade later.
"I like to think of people as being one of two types," Almeida explained. "With Velcro people, when a stressor happens it sticks to them; they get really upset and, by the end of the day, they are still grumpy and fuming. With Teflon people, when stressors happen to them they slide right off. It's the Velcro people who end up suffering health consequences down the road."
Almeida said certain types of people are more likely to experience stress in their lives — including younger individuals, people with higher cognitive abilities, and those with higher levels of education — but those factors don’t always have a bearing on how stress affects their health.
"What is interesting is how these people deal with their stress," said Almeida. "Our research shows that people age 65 and up tend to be more reactive to stress than younger people, likely because they aren't exposed to a lot of stress at this stage in their lives, and they are out of practice in dealing with it. Younger people are better at dealing with it because they cope with it so frequently. Likewise, our research shows that people with lower cognitive abilities and education levels are more reactive to stress than people with higher cognitive abilities and education levels, likely because they have less control over the stressors in their lives."
He added that seeking to reduce the stressors in one’s life “isn't the answer. We just need to figure out how to manage them better."