Keeping your cool during stressful situations could be key to long-term health, according to a new study.
Those who let go of a cheerful mood easily as they react to minor stressors of daily life have elevated levels of inflammation, according to the study.
Such flare-ups are simply part of the body’s ability to protect itself via the immune system, but chronic, long term inflammation can damage health and has been associated with obesity, heart disease and cancer.
Mounting evidence points to the health implications of emotional response, which the researchers call “affective reactivity” to daily stressors.
It’s more than a simple question of quality of life: the researchers found that how many daily stressors experienced by an individual had fewer consequences for inflammation than his or her reaction to them.
“A person’s frequency of stress may be less related to inflammation than responses to stress,” says Nancy Sin of Pennsylvania State University in the U.S.
“It is how a person reacts to stress that is important.”
In the study, which pinpoints women as being at a greater risk than men for stress-related health problems, the research team worked with 872 adults from the National Study of Daily Experiences.
Participants reported daily stressors and their emotional reactions to them for eight consecutive days and the research team assessed samples of their blood for signs of inflammation.
Stressors observed included arguments and avoiding arguments at school, home and the workplace in addition to experiences of discrimination and other events that have the tendency to stress everyone involved, such as a delayed train.
They interviewed participants over the phone on a daily basis during the experiment, and asked them to rate their emotions in terms of positivity or negativity and to say whether an experience was stressful or not.
The researchers compared each participant’s emotional reaction on days when they felt stressed by their encounters against days they felt relaxed.
“We calculated reactivity scores to see how participants generally reacted to stressors,” Sin said. “Then we used it to predict two markers of inflammation.”
Women are more likely to react negatively to minor daily stressors than their male counterparts, and Sin says her findings have implications for the importance of positive thinking in inevitably stressful situations.
“Positive emotions, and how they can help people in the event of stress, have really been overlooked,” she says.
The paper, which according to Sin is the first to link biomarkers of inflammation with positive responses to simple stressors in daily life, was published in the journal Health Psychology.