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Stress

Do Optimists Handle Stress Better Than Pessimists?

Antecedent-focused emotion regulation helps optimists minimize daily stressors.

Key points

  • Optimists and pessimists both struggle to cope once they're stressed out. But optimists learn to minimize stressors in advance.
  • "Antecedent-focused emotion regulation" helps optimists avoid or defang daily stressors before they happen.
  • Optimism mitigates stress if emotion regulation is used early in the emotion-generating process, not after you're already stressed out.

When the world is turned upside down and seems like it's going to hell in a handbasket, it's hard to be optimistic. Some situations are so dire that no amount of optimism or "response-focused emotion regulation" can make things better. In earth-shaking circumstances or a humanitarian crisis, being a pragmatic realist is probably better for our emotional well-being than toxic positivity or Pollyannaism.

Buravleva stock/Shutterstock
Source: Buravleva stock/Shutterstock

That said, when coping with daily stressors (work stress, home stress, arguments), new research suggests that optimism helps older adults maintain emotional well-being via "antecedent-focused emotion regulation." During AFER, optimists utilize an explanatory style that involves reframing potential stressors as "challenges not threats" early in the emotion-generating process, or they steer clear and avoid potential stressors altogether.

This 20-year study led by a team of researchers from Boston University and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health suggests that antecedent-focused emotion regulation helps optimists avoid or minimize the impact of stressful circumstances before they happen. Antecedent means "preceding in time or order" or "a thing or event that existed before or logically precedes another."

The findings of this two-decade study (Lee et al., 2022) on the link between optimism, daily stressors, and emotional well-being in a cohort of 233 men who participated in the Veterans Affairs Normative Aging Study were published on March 7 in The Journals of Gerontology: Series B.

Optimism Isn't a Winning Strategy for Coping with Daily Stressors If You're Already Stressed Out

Dispositional optimism is loosely defined as the tendency to expect positive outcomes based on a belief that adverse events are fleeting, situation-specific, and external to one's core being. Optimists tend to see the proverbial glass as "half-full." Their explanatory style and worldview: Positive events are more likely to occur in the future than negative events.

When first author Lewina Lee and colleagues set out to study how optimism affects people's response to daily stressors, they expected to find that optimists would have less emotional reactivity to daily stressors and bounce back faster (emotional recovery) based on the so-called buffering hypothesis.

As the authors explain, "Our buffering hypothesis posits that optimism would mitigate the negative emotional impact of daily stressors, such that higher optimism would be associated with lower emotional reactivity and more effective emotional recovery from daily stressors."

Antecedent-Based Emotion Regulation Has Stress-Busting Potential

To their surprise, Lee et al. found that their buffering hypothesis fell flat; optimists weren't necessarily less emotionally reactive and didn't always bounce back faster than pessimists once they'd already encountered a daily stressor.

However, planning ahead and developing a coping strategy via antecedent-focused emotion regulation before experiencing stressors in the heat of the moment did help optimists stay calm, cool, and collected in the face of day-to-day stressors. As the authors explain:

"Optimism may protect emotional well-being in later life through antecedent-focused emotion regulation strategies that intervene earlier in the emotion-generative process, such as attention deployment and situation selection, rather than through response-focused strategies."

Again, the key to antecedent-focused emotion regulation is that you foresee what's likely to trigger a stress response and reframe your explanatory style (or avoid the situation) before emotions flare up, not after you're already stressed out.

Take-Home Message: Antecedent Coping Strategies Are Key

"In this prospective study on optimism and daily stress processes, our hypothesis that optimism would buffer the effects of daily stressors on daily affect was not supported," the authors conclude. Nevertheless, optimism appears to preserve emotional well-being among older adults if they use antecedent strategies—which limit exposure and negative perceptions of potentially stressful circumstances before they happen—early in the emotion-generative process.

References

Lewina O. Lee, Francine Grodstein, Claudia Trudel-Fitzgerald, Peter James, Sakurako S. Okuzono, Hayami K. Koga, Joel Schwartz, Avron Spiro, III, Daniel K. Mroczek, Laura D. Kubzansky. "Optimism, Daily Stressors, and Emotional Well-Being Over Two Decades in a Cohort of Aging Men." The Journals of Gerontology: Series B, gbac025 (First published: March 07, 2022) DOI: 10.1093/geronb/gbac025

David de Meza and Chris Dawson. "Neither an Optimist Nor a Pessimist Be: Mistaken Expectations Lower Well-Being." Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (First published online: July 06, 2020) DOI: 10.1177/0146167220934577

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