Were you really grumpy when you lost power during Hurricane Sandy? If so, you may be more likely to suffer negative health consequences 10 years down the road than those who took the superstorm in stride.
While the widespread perception has always been that stress induces a vast array of health problems -- everything from anxiety to fatigue -- researchers from Penn State University say that it's actually the way people react to potentially stressful situations that determines whether they will suffer adverse health effects in the future.
"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 at Penn State. "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 those participating in the MIDUS (Midlife in the United States) study funded by the National Institute on Aging, Almeida and others investigated the relationships among stressful events in daily life, people's reactions to those events and their health issues 10 years later.
The researchers talked to 2,000 people by phone for eight nights in a row about what had happened to them in the past 24 hours. They asked about each person's use of time, their moods, their health and the stressful events they had experienced.
"Most social-science surveys are based on long retrospective accounts of your life in the past month or maybe the past week," Almeida said. "By asking people to focus just on the past 24 hours, we were able to capture a particular day in someone's life. Then, by studying consecutive days, we were able to see the ebb and flow of their daily experiences."
Researchers surveyed MIDUS participants from 1995 and 2005, giving them a real long-term look at how experiences that were occurring 10 years ago were related to present health issues.
According to Almeida, certain types of people are more likely to experience stress in their lives. Younger people, for example, have more stress than older people; people with higher cognitive abilities have more stress than people with lower cognitive abilities; and people with higher levels of education have more stress than people with less education.
"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 involved in a whole host 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."