New research discovers it is important to learn how to keep stress from lingering and carrying over to the next day. Investigators found that people who allow their negative emotional responses to stress to persist into the following day have an increased risk of health problems and physical limitations later in life.
“Our research shows that negative emotions that linger after even minor, daily stressors have important implications for our long-term physical health,” said psychological scientist Kate Leger, a doctoral student at the University of California, Irvine.
“When most people think of the types of stressors that impact health, they think of the big things, major life events that severely impact their lives, such as the death of a loved one or getting divorced,” Leger said.
“But accumulating findings suggest that it’s not just the big events, but minor, everyday stressors that can impact our health as well.” Learning to “let it go” is an important factor for improving long-term health.
The research findings appear in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.
While previous studies suggest a clear association between same-day responses to stress and long-term well-being, the new investigation wanted to assess the impact of lingering emotional responses.
That is, does it make a difference if a stressor — such as a flat tire, a bad grade, or an argument — leads to negative emotions that spill over into the following day?
To find out, Leger and colleagues Drs. Susan T. Charles and David M. Almeida analyzed data from the Midlife in the United States Survey, a nationally representative, longitudinal study of adults.
As part of the study, participants completed an 8-day survey of negative emotion; each day, they reported how much of the time over the previous 24 hours they had felt a variety of emotions (e.g., lonely, afraid, irritable, angry). They also reported the stressors they experienced each day.
Then, in a subsequent part of the study that took place 10 years later, the participants completed surveys that assessed their chronic illnesses and functional limitations. Participants reported the degree to which they were able to carry out basic and everyday tasks, such as dressing themselves, climbing a flight of stairs, carrying groceries, and walking several blocks.
As expected, people tended to report higher negative emotion if they had experienced a stressor the previous day compared with if they hadn’t experienced any stressor the day before. Moreover, the analyses revealed that lingering negative emotions (in response to a stressor) were associated with a greater number of health problems, including chronic illnesses, functional impairments, and difficulties with everyday tasks, a decade later.
These associations were discovered independently of a participants’ gender, education, and baseline health. The linkage between stress and ill health continued even after the researchers took participants’ same-day emotional responses and average number of stressors into account.
“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 said.
Leger and colleagues hypothesize that this link could play out through activation of stress-related systems or through health behaviors, two potential mechanisms that offer avenues for future research.
“Stress is common in our everyday lives. It happens at work, it happens at school, it happens at home and in our relationships,” Leger said. “Our research shows that the strategy to ‘just let it go’ could be beneficial to our long term physical health.”