Here's a good reason to get a grip on the stress in your life. If you handle stress poorly -- everything from conflicts at work to disagreements with your spouse to irritations like sitting in traffic jams -- it may put you at greater risk for anxiety disorders and other mental health issues 10 years later, a new study shows.
Daily stressors can cause wear and tear on your emotional health, says Susan Charles, professor of psychology and social behavior at the University of California-Irvine and lead author of the research. It's not the number of daily stressors, it's how you respond to them. If you get really anxious or sad about stress, it may take a toll on your mental health, she says.
Charles and colleagues analyzed data on 711 men and women, ages 25 to 74, who were interviewed two times 10 years apart. At the beginning, participants were asked every day for eight days to report stressors that had happened that day. They were also asked to report their emotions that day including sadness, anxiety and worry.
This allowed researchers to determine if participants had more anxiety and depression on the days that the stressors occurred. Participants also filled out questionnaires about their overall mental health, including anxiety disorders and depression, at the beginning of the research and 10 years later.
Findings, which appear online in the journal Psychological Science: People who responded to stress with more anxiety and sadness than the average person were much more likely to have self-reported anxiety/mood disorders and psychological distress 10 years later. These were people who didn't report mental health problems at the beginning of the study, Charles says.
"What our study suggests is that we need to think about how we experience our emotions on a daily basis because it has a long-term impact on our mental health," she says.
One way to do that is to view the stress in your life as a challenge and not a threat, she says. For instance, if you're stressed about going to a party where you don't know anyone, instead of worrying that you might look out of place, set a goal of getting to know three new people and learning three new things about each one, Charles says.
If you're worried about getting laid off at work, focus on displaying your strengths, not worrying that the boss will uncover your weaknesses, she says.
If you've been diagnosed with arthritis or another illness, try to think about what actions you can take to gain control over the illness instead of focusing on what you can't do, she says.
"I'm not trying to say you have to sugar coat everything," Charles says. But attitude matters when it comes to handling stress, she says.
Psychologist Joe Burgo, author of Why Do I Do That? and the founder of afterpsychotherapy.com, says stress is most disabling when it makes us feel helpless. "But if we focus on those areas where we might be able to do something, we lessen its harmful effects. It will also make us feel good about ourselves."
Think of a stressful situation as a time to build self-esteem and a sense of mastery, he says. For example, it would take some courage to set yourself a goal of meeting three people at a party and learning three things about each of them, especially if you're a person who becomes anxious in unfamiliar social situations, Burgo says.
"But if you succeed, not only will you have gained some sense of mastery over a stressful situation, but you will also feel good about yourself for having done so," he says. "Greater reserves of self-esteem and belief in our ability to manage stressful situations will help us to handle future stressors more effectively. The process builds upon itself."
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