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How You React to Stress Defines The Diseases You May Have 10 Years Later

Update Date: Nov 04, 2012 04:21 AM EST

It is a common notion that stress causes health problems. However, researchers from Penn State claim through a new study that it is not the stressors themselves that cause health consequences in people, but the way people react to the stressors that determine the health consequences they may face as a result.

"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."

For the study, researchers used data of participants of the MIDUS (Midlife in the United States) study, a national longitudinal study of health and well-being, funded by the National Institute on Aging.

With the help of the data, researchers assessed the link between stressful events in daily life, people's reactions to those events and their health and well-being 10 years later.

Specifically, the researchers conducted a telephonic interview with 2,000 people, asking them about what happened with them in the last 24 hours. They did this for 8 consequent nights.

The researchers asked the participants questions pertaining to their moods, how they utilized their time, their physical health, productivity, stressors in their lives, etc.

"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."

Also, the researchers tested the saliva samples of the participants on four different days during those 8 days of the interview, in order to determine amounts of the stress hormone, cortisol.

"We did this 10 years ago in 1995 and again in 2005," Almeida said. "By having longitudinal data, not only were we able to look at change in daily experiences over this time but how experiences that were occurring 10 years ago are related to health and well being now."

The researchers found that people who became upset easily due to the stressors and continued thinking about them even after the event was over, were more prone 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."

Almeida further says that there are certain types of people who are more likely to experience more stress in their lives.

For example, younger people are bound to experience more stress than older people. People who are more intelligent, or those with higher cognitive abilities,or people with higher levels of education, are the category which experience more stress than their counterparts.

"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."

Having a lot of stressors in life does not necessarily mean that a person is going through a lot of hardship. It also means that a person is experiencing a variety of new activities.

"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."

The results appear online in the current issue of Annals of Behavioral Medicine.

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