Probing Question: Is stress always bad?

red colored pencil pressed into paper with word Stress
© iStockphoto/PhaticPhotography

You’re late for work because of traffic. It rains and you forgot your umbrella. Your boss chews you out for missing an important meeting. Your child vomits at school so you leave at lunchtime to take him home. Your credit card bill is through the roof. Your elderly dog pees on the floor. You burn the garlic bread you were making for dinner. And just when you think your day couldn’t get any worse, your spouse arrives home, complaining of an equally stressful day.

We’ve all had days like this when it seems like a million little stressors add up to one big bad mood. We’ve heard that stress isn’t good for our health—that it raises our blood pressure, gives us indigestion, and causes us to become depressed, for example. So should we just avoid stressors as much as possible?

The answer, according to David Almeida, professor of human development and family studies, is no.

“I used to think the key to avoiding the negative health effects of stress was to avoid stressors, but my research has shown that this is not entirely true,” he says. “It turns out it’s not the stressors that cause health problems; it’s people’s emotional reactions to the stressors that determine whether they will suffer health consequences.“

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 are investigating the relationships among stressful events in daily life, people’s emotional reactions to those events, and their health and well being ten years later.

“Our research shows that what happened in your daily life ten years ago predicts your chronic health conditions and psychological health now, independent of your earlier health and your current stress,” says Almeida. “For example, if you had a lot of work deadlines and you were really grumpy because of it, then you are more likely to suffer negative health consequences today than someone who also had a lot of work to do, but didn’t let it bother her.”

David Almeida

David Almeida

Almeida says he likes to think of people as being one of two types: “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,” he says. “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.”

According to Almeida, certain types of people are more likely to experience stressors in their daily lives. Younger people, for example, have more stressors than older people; people with higher cognitive abilities have more stressors than people with lower cognitive abilities; and people with higher levels of education have more stressors than people with less education.

“What is interesting is how these people deal with their stressors,” says Almeida. “Older people age 65 and up tend to be more reactive to stressors than younger people, likely because they aren’t exposed to a lot of stressors at this stage in their lives, and they are out of practice in dealing with them. Younger people are better at dealing with it because they cope with it so frequently. Likewise, 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 stressors may be a symptom that your life is filled with hardship, they could also simply mean that you are engaged in a wide variety of activities and experiences.

“If this is the case, reducing exposure to stressors isn’t the answer,” says Almeida. “We just need to figure out how to manage them better.”

Almeida’s advice for minimizing the effects of stress on long-term health and well-being?

“Do whatever you can do to manage the stressors in your life,” he says. “One thing to try is to limit the length of time you’re thinking about the stressor. There is some work coming out of Martin Sliwinski’s lab that suggests that spending time thinking about a stressful event is almost as bad as experiencing the stressor itself. You could be stuck in traffic, and that’s very stressful, or you could be thinking about being stuck in traffic and have the same reaction to it. One way to stop this type of thinking is to focus your thoughts on positive events. Happiness seems to cut through negative thought processes.”

Other things to try, suggests Almeida are exercise, getting outside, and breathing deeply. “These activities help manage the biological havoc that stressors might be having on you.”

So the next time someone cuts you off in traffic, go ahead and curse. But once you’re done, take a few deep breaths and let it go.

David Almeida, Ph.D., is Professor of Human Development, and can be reached at dalmeida@psu.edu.

Last Updated September 19, 2012