April 17, 2018

Lingering feelings over daily stresses may impact long-term health

At a Glance

  • Researchers found that people who continued to have negative feelings about a stressful event the next day were more likely to have health issues ten years later.
  • The study results suggest that how quickly you recover from daily life stressors may have long-term health consequences.
Stressed woman arguing with colleague at work How quickly we let go of daily stresses may affect our long-term health. Fizkes/iStock/Thinkstock

Stress is a normal, often useful feeling. It’s a physical and emotional reaction that people experience as they encounter changes in life. But stress that’s extreme or chronic (persists over time) can carry physical and mental health risks.

Some people may cope with stress more effectively or recover from stressful events more quickly than others. Studies have linked a person’s emotional response to daily stressors with long-term health effects, including mental disorders, physical illness, and even death. However, less is known about the long-term health effects of how quickly someone recovers from daily stressors.

To find out whether lingering negative feelings over daily stressors affects long-term health, Kate Leger of the University of California, Irvine and her colleagues analyzed data from a nationwide survey of more than 1,100 adults. The research was supported by NIH’s National Institute of Aging (NIA). Results were published in Psychological Science on March 19, 2018.

For eight days, participants answered questions about the number and type of daily stressors they experienced over the past 24 hours. Stressful events included arguing or almost arguing with someone; experiencing a stressful event at work, home, or school; experiencing discrimination based on race, gender, or age; having something bad happen to someone you’re close to; or experiencing any other bad or stressful events. The participants then rated how often they felt different emotions during that day on a scale of 1 (none) to 4 (all of the time).

Almost 10 years later, the participants answered questions about their physical health. They were asked whether they’d experienced any of 26 different chronic illness in the last year, or if they’d ever experienced heart disease or cancer. They were also asked about their ability to carry out day-to-day activities, such as getting dressed, bathing, walking around, climbing stairs, or carrying groceries. They then ranked how much they felt their health interfered with these daily activities on a scale of 1 (not at all) to 4 (a lot).

Those who continued to experience negative feelings the day after a stressful event—on days without a stressful event occurring—had more chronic physical health conditions and limitations in their day-to-day activities 10 years later. The findings suggest that the ability to recover from stress may help improve long-term physical health outcomes.

“This means that health outcomes don’t just reflect how people react to daily stressors, or the number of stressors they are exposed to—there is something unique about how negative they feel the next day that has important consequences for physical health,” Leger explains.

“Stress is common in our everyday lives,” she adds. “It happens at work, it happens at school, it happens at home and in our relationships. Our research shows that the strategy to ‘just let it go’ could be beneficial to our long-term physical health.”

–by Tianna Hicklin, Ph.D.

Related Links

References: Let It Go: Lingering Negative Affect in Response to Daily Stressors Is Associated With Physical Health Years Later. Leger KA, Charles ST, Almeida DM. Psychol Sci. 2018 Mar 1:956797618763097. doi: 10.1177/0956797618763097. [Epub ahead of print] PMID: 29553880.

Funding: NIH’s National Institute of Aging (NIA).