A new study suggests that contrary to what we may think, the amount of stress that we experience isn’t what determines whether we develop chronic health problems like high blood pressure, heart disease, or pain down the road.
Instead, it’s all about how we react to things.
For some, every-day hassles cause a cascade of frustration, irritation and anxiety. Others rise above the problems, focus on finding solutions, or just find a way to kick back and watch a favorite comedy show or a new movie.
The researchers said that how you react to what happens in your day-to-day life predicts whether you’ll develop chronic health conditions 10 years from now, no matter how healthy you are or what level of stress you experience.
The research was published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine.
If you’re one of the people who lets the vicissitudes of everyday life get to you, this research provides a wake-up call that it’s time to figure out how to manage the issues and troubles that come your way with far less wear and tear.
It’s easier said than done, for sure. But learning how to be more effective in managing stress could help you live a longer and happier life.
The researchers surveyed 2,000 people every night for 8 consecutive nights, asking them about what happened in their lives over the last 24 hours. They asked about physical issues and symptoms, moods, productivity, how they spent their time, and any stressful events they experience – things like being stuck in traffic jams or having an argument with a co-worker. By doing the interviews night after night, the researchers could document the ebb and flow of daily experience, and how the subjects reacted to things.
The study participants were part of a national, long-term study of health and well being called MIDUS (Midlife in the United States), funded by the National Institute on Aging.
Saliva samples were collected from all the participants at 4 different times on half the days. The samples helped the researchers assess the amount of cortisol, a stress hormone circulating in their bodies. They also linked the data to the participants’ demographic information, personalities, number of family and friends, and personalities.
All that data was collected twice: once in 1995 and then again in 2005. The researchers found that some people are really good at letting things go, and others dwell on problems.
Who got sick? The ones who clung to their hassles and problems like glue.
What should you do if you’re one of those people who let stress get you down? The research didn’t answer this question specifically, but experts say there are some things you can do now:
- Use self-talk to put things into perspective. If you get a flat tire, tell yourself, “Well, at least I was able to contact the tow truck, or at least I’m safe and wasn’t in an accident.” If the traffic is bad, let your friends know you’ll be late and turn on some music you’ll enjoy.
- When something really bad happens, try to break up the problem into smaller pieces and don’t face it all at once. Avoid imagining the worst. Create an action plan for each issue.
- Use exercise and the things you love to do to help you turn your attention to something more pleasurable and fun.
- Catch yourself if you tend to keep hashing over things. For some people, writing down what you’re thinking will allow you to get it off your chest and move on, at least until tomorrow.
If all else fails, remind yourself about the results of this study: if you’re hanging on to the day’s stresses, you may be slowly making yourself sick, even killing yourself. Learning to let go will make you healthier.
It’s worth a try.
What’s effective for you?
Barbara Bronson Gray RN MN is an award-winning writer and a nationally recognized health expert. She’s a regular contributor to HealthDay.com, preparedpatientforum.com and thirdage.com. Barbara has worked in hospitals, as a nurse and as an administrator, led a major healthcare magazine, created a website for WebMD, and served as a leader of global communications for Amgen, the world’s largest biotech company. She continues to write and speak about healthcare and has a communications consultancy
She blogs at http://www.bodboss.com