Stress is hard on the mind -- this much we intuitively know. But what we may not realize is how much our daily reactions to stress take a cumulative toll on our minds.
Most psychological research on the effects of stress has focused on relatively short-term outcomes. A new study in the journal Psychological Science took the analysis further by attempting to find out what daily stress reactions do to us 10 years later.
Researchers from the University of California, Irvine used data from national surveys (the Midlife Development in the United States Series and National Study of Daily Experiences) to assess the daily stressors and reactions to stress of roughly 700 participants between the ages of 25 and 74. The stress profile for these participants covered eight consecutive days, during which they reported stressful situations encountered and their reactions to those situations.
For some of the days, participants reported no especially stressful situations, but were asked if negative reactions from previous days were still having a negative effect. They were also asked to characterize their emotional state, using words like hopelessness, worthlessness, nervousness, or restlessness.
As predicted, participants who reported the most negative reactions to stress 10 years earlier were those with the highest incidence of depression and anxiety. In particular, participants who experienced more “bleed over” stress from day to day (in other words, stress from one day continued to fuel negative reactions on subsequent days) were most likely to suffer from depression and anxiety 10 years later.
So what does this tell us?
Aside from reinforcing an intuitive understanding that our reactions to stressful situations can make all the difference, this study makes a strong case for “letting go” of negativity. Everyone is going to experience negative feelings in response to tough situations at work, home or anywhere else, but letting those feelings linger day after day has long-term consequences for our minds.
Think of ongoing negative reactions to stress as the worst kind of compounding interest, and avoid accordingly.