We always knew stressors cause health problems. Researchers at Penn State shone new light on this relationship between stressors and health. It’s our reaction to the stressors rather than the stressors themselves that determine the health consequences, according to their study.
“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 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.”
Using a subset of people who are participating in the MIDUS [Midlife in the United States] study, a national longitudinal study of health and well being that is funded by the National Institute on Aging, Almeida and his colleagues studied the relationships among stressful events in daily life, people’s reactions to those events and their health and well being 10 years later.
The team found that people who got upset by daily stressors and continued to dwell on them after they have passed were more likely to suffer from chronic health problems—especially pain, such as that related to arthritis, and cardiovascular issues—10 years later.
“I like to think of people as being one of two types,” Almeida said. “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.”
The results appear online in the current issue of Annals of Behavioral Medicine.
According to Almeida, certain types of people are more likely to experience stress in their lives. Younger people have more stress than older people; people with higher cognitive skills have more stress than people with lower cognitive abilities; and more educated individuals have more stress than less educated ones.
“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.”
While stress may be a symptom that a person’s life is filled with hardship, it could also simply mean that the person is engaged in a wide variety of activities and experiences.
“If this is the case, reducing exposure to stressors isn’t the answer,” said Almeida. “We just need to figure out how to manage them better.”