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Response to Daily Stress Affects Long-Term Health

News  |  By Jennifer Thew RN  
   April 20, 2018

Dwelling on negative feelings caused by daily stressors leads to poorer health decades later.

Stress is a part of life. It can be a useful feeling that spurs productive actions like filing taxes, passing medications on time, or studying for an exam. However, the way individuals cope with stress, varies. While some get bogged down by life’s daily stressors, others are quicker to shake-off stressful events.

Now, new research published in the journal Psychological Science, suggests a person’s ability to recover from stress is important to long-term physical health outcomes.

Scientists from University of California, Irvine, found that people whose negative emotional responses to stress carry over to the next day are more likely to report health problems and physical limitations later in life compared with peers who can, “let it go.”

“Our research shows that negative emotions that linger after even minor, daily stressors have important implications for our long-term physical health,” says UCI psychological scientist Kate Leger a news release.

Get over it

Leger and her colleagues analyzed data from a nationwide survey of more than 1,100 adults. Over eight days, participants answered questions about the number and type of daily stressors they experienced over the past 24 hours.

Stressful events included:

  • Arguing or almost arguing with someone
  • Experiencing a stressful event at work, home, or school
  • Experiencing discrimination based on race, gender, or age
  • Having something bad happen to someone you’re close to
  • Experiencing any other bad or stressful events

Each day, they also reported how much of the time over the previous 24 hours they had felt a variety of negative emotions.

Almost a decade later, they answered questions about their physical health including whether they experienced any of 26 different chronic illness in the last year, or if they’d ever experienced heart disease or cancer. They were also asked about their ability perform activities of daily living, such as getting dressed, bathing, walking around, climbing stairs, or carrying groceries. They then rated how much they felt their health interfered with these ADLs.

Participants whose negative feelings continued to the day after a stressful event—on days without a stressful event occurring—had more chronic physical health conditions and limitations in their day-to-day activities 10 years later than those whose emotions were contained to the day of the stressful event.

“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 explains.

The importance of resilience

These findings highlight the importance of a concept that is gaining traction in among healthcare professionals—resilience—often described as the antidote to burnout.   

A 2011 study by nurse researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing found that 34% of nurses scored higher than the average for healthcare workers on the Maslach Burnout Inventory emotional exhaustion subscale.

“Stress is common in our everyday lives,” Leger adds. “It happens at work, it happens at school, it happens at home and in our relationships. Our research shows that the strategy to ‘just let it go’ could be beneficial to our long-term physical health.”

Page West, RN, MHA, MPA, senior vice president and chief nursing executive at Dignity Health is working to help the organization's nurses cultivate resilience. 

"If we focus on resilience and figuring out what is that magic piece of work that allows nurses or providers to keep in touch with their heart and soul, then we don't reach the burnout phase," West says. "We need to continue to build processes and time into the work day for the nurses to be able to connect their heart and their mind. To allow them to have some moments for reflective pause that get them through the day rather than just having to do task after task after task."

Jennifer Thew, RN, is the senior nursing editor at HealthLeaders.

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