How you react to stressful events is more important to your health than how frequently you encounter stress, according to new research.
While it is known that stress and negative emotions increase the risk of heart disease, the reasons why are not really understood, according to researchers from Pennsylvania State and Columbia University.
One potential factor is a dysregulation of the autonomic nervous system, a case of a person’s normally self-regulated nervous system getting off track, the researchers postulate.
That led Nancy L. Sin, Ph.D., and her colleagues to investigate if daily stress and heart rate variability — a measure of autonomic regulation of the heart — are linked. Heart rate variability is the variation in intervals between consecutive heartbeats, researchers explained.
“Higher heart rate variability is better for health as it reflects the capacity to respond to challenges,” said Sin, a postdoctoral fellow at Pennsylvania State. “People with lower heart rate variability have a greater risk of cardiovascular disease and premature death.”
And while depression and major stressful events are known to be harmful to our health, the investigators noted that less attention has been paid to the frustrations and hassles of everyday life.
So for this study, Sin and the research team analyzed data collected from 909 participants, including telephone interviews over eight consecutive days and the results from an electrocardiogram. The participants were between the ages of 35 and 85.
During the daily phone interviews, the participants were asked to report the stressful events they had experienced that day, rating how stressful each event was by choosing “not at all,” “not very,” “somewhat,” or “very.”
They were also asked about their negative emotions that day, such as feeling angry, sad, or nervous.
On average, participants reported having at least one stressful experience on 42 percent of the interview days, and these experiences were generally rated as “somewhat” stressful.
The researchers found that participants who reported a lot of stressful events in their lives were not necessarily those who had lower heart rate variability. Instead, it was those who perceived the events as more stressful or who experienced a greater spike in negative emotions that had lower heart rate variability — meaning these people may be at a higher risk for heart disease, according to the scientists.
“These results tell us that a person’s perceptions and emotional reactions to stressful events are more important than exposure to stress per se,” said Sin. “This adds to the evidence that minor hassles might pile up to influence health. We hope these findings will help inform the development of interventions to improve well-being in daily life and to promote better health.”
The study was published in Psychosomatic Medicine.