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Optimists Are Better at Regulating Stress

Update Date: Jul 23, 2013 05:37 PM EDT

Optimists are better at regulating stress, according to a new study.

For the first time, psychologists have found a reliable link between optimism and a person's biological stress response.

Researchers from Concordia University say the latest study provides new insight into how optimists and pessimists handle stress.

The findings, published in the journal Health Psychology, show that the stress hormone cortisol tends to be more stable in those with more positive personalities.

Researchers collected saliva samples from 135 older adults five times a day for over six years. Researchers said people aged 60 and over were selected for the study because they often face a number of age-related stressors and their cortisol levels have been shown to increase.

Researchers asked the participants to report the level of stress they perceived in their day-to-day lives, and self-identify along a continuum as optimists or pessimists. Researchers then measured each person's stress levels against their own average. Researchers explained that this would provide a real-world picture of how individuals handle stress because individuals can become accustomed to the typical amount of stress in their lives.

"For some people, going to the grocery store on a Saturday morning can be very stressful, so that's why we asked people how often they felt stressed or overwhelmed during the day and compared people to their own averages, then analyzed their responses by looking at the stress levels over many days," Joelle Jobin, a PhD candidate in clinical psychology, said in a statement.

Jobin notes that pessimists tended to have a higher stress baseline than optimists.  However, the latest study shows that they also have trouble regulating their system when they go through particularly stressful situation.

"On days where they experience higher than average stress, that's when we see that the pessimists' stress response is much elevated, and they have trouble bringing their cortisol levels back down. Optimists, by contrast, were protected in these circumstances," explained Jobin.

Surprisingly, researchers found that optimists who had more stressful lives secreted higher cortisol levels than expected shortly after they awoke (cortisol peaks just after waking and declines through the day). Researchers said there are several possible explanations, but notes that the finding points to the difficulty of classifying these complex hormones as good or bad.

"The problem with cortisol is that we call it 'the stress hormone,' but it's also our 'get up and do things' hormone, so we may secrete more if engaged and focused on what's happening," Jobin noted.

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