Volume 14, Number 8
How you feel today about what happened yesterday can affect your health ten years from now. This is the conclusion of a study recently published in Psychological Science by investigators from the University of California, Irvine and Pennsylvania State University.
It has long been known that the chronic experience of daily hassles or stressors is associated with poorer health, as is having more intense negative emotions about these hassles. What hadn’t been previously studied is the impact of how quickly people are able to let go of the negative emotion of what happened yesterday. It appears that the ability to “let it go” matters.
Data for the study came from individuals who participated in both the second and third waves of the Midlife in the United States Survey (MIDUS II and MIDUS III); the two waves were completed approximately 10 years apart. In MIDUS II, participants completed telephone interviews on 8 consecutive days that included questions about stressors and emotions. The investigators specifically examined emotions on days where participants did not report stressors for that day, but had reported stressors the day before. In other words, the presence of negative emotion related to yesterday’s stressors was targeted. The data from MIDUS III that were of interest were the presence of chronic illness and the functional impact of health problems.
Not surprisingly, participants had more negative emotions on days after they had experienced a stressor than on days when there was no stressor on the day before. Of greater importance was that more negative emotions on the day after stressors was associated with more chronic illness and functional limitations ten years later. The implication is that not being able to let go of the emotion associated with common life stressors has health consequences.
The investigators suggest two possible pathways for the association of lingering negative emotion and poorer health. First, physiological responses to stress are prolonged, so that persons become more vulnerable to disease. The second likely pathway is that negative emotional states are associated with poorer health behaviors; when emotionally upset, persons are less likely to exercise or eat healthy foods, and more likely to use alcohol or drugs.
It is important to emphasize that the stressors examined in this research were not major losses or life events. Obviously, the negative emotions associated with grief or trauma are commonly present for months or years. Arguments, an upsetting event at work, or something bad happening to a friend or relative were the kind of stressors examined in this study.
There are a number of ways that persons can let go of the negative emotions associated with daily hassles and stressors. Physical activity and/or relaxation exercises are behavioral strategies that can improve an individual’s emotional state. Many stressful situations can be viewed as problems to be solved, and problem-solving itself doesn’t typically require that an individual remains angry, irritable, or anxious. Another option is to adopt a growth mindset in which one looks at frustrations as opportunities to learn and grow. Because stress and negative emotion tend to narrow attention, looking at the bigger picture of what one values and finds important in life functions as a contributor to resilience.
Lingering negative emotion from yesterday’s stressors not only detracts from quality of life today, it also appears to be harmful to one’s health. While letting go of emotion about what happened yesterday can be difficult, it is a healthy goal to pursue.
Paul J. Hershberger, Ph.D.
… is a clinical health psychologist. He is Professor, Director of Research, and Director of the Division of Behavioral Health, Department of Family Medicine, Wright State University Boonshoft School of Medicine.
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