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Study Finds Minor Stressors Impact Long-Term Mental Health

Emotional responses to daily stressors predict long-term mental health

A new study finds that our emotional responses to everyday stressors impact our long term mental health.

A Ten Year Study

Dr. Susan Charles of the University of California, Irvine and her colleagues used data from two national surveys to examine the relationship between how people respond to daily emotional stressors and the state of their mental health ten years later. A major strength of the study was that the researchers were able to use a very large sample of 711 adults ranging in age from 25-74. In the first time period, the participants were assessed across eight consecutive evenings where they were asked to report their daily life stressors (such as an argument at home or a problem at work). They were also asked to indicate their general emotional state, including the presence of negative emotions such as hopelessness, worthlessness, nervousness, or restlessness.

In the second time period, ten years later, data was gathered about the participants’ emotional state, their level of psychological distress, and self-reports of any mental disorders such as anxiety or depression. They found that people who responded to daily stressors with heightened emotional reactions (of the negative kind) were significantly more likely to report being more emotionally distressed ten years later, and had a higher incidence of anxiety and depression.

What the Study Teaches Us

The researchers concluded that the level of negative emotions people experience and how they respond to seemingly normal minor stressors in their lives have long-term implications for their mental health. In other words, our emotional and mental health are not only determined by major life events, but can be significantly impacted by how we deal with daily emotional assaults, especially when we ignore such experiences and take no steps to ameliorate their impact.

What You Can Do to Protect Yourself against Daily Psychological Stressors

The participants in the study are no different than most of us in that we all experience daily stressors that seem minor or insufficiently significant to warrant running to a therapist or taking any kind of reparative action. However, as the study points out, these small emotional injuries often accumulate and fester when left untreated and can result in long term damage to our mental health.

Small emotional wounds, just like minor physical ones, can and should be ‘treated’. The first step in doing so is to avoid sweeping these experiences under the rug. We should ask ourselves whether our feelings/mood/morale has sustained an ‘injury’, and if so, we should take time to address our emotional state. For example, if our boss yells at us at work, we could devote some time to thinking about how to handle such incidents in the future. We could consider whether their outburst warrants a visit to the human resources department (see my article about ‘horrible bosses’ here). And we can asses whether we might need to discuss the incident with a spouse, trusted friend, or colleague in order to receive emotional validation (see my article about the soothing powers of emotional validation here).

For more advice about how to deal with daily emotional stressors check out my upcoming book, Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries.

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Copyright 2013 by Guy Winch

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Reference: S. T. Charles, J. R. Piazza, J. Mogle, M. J. Sliwinski, D. M. Almeida. The Wear and Tear of Daily Stressors on Mental Health. Psychological Science, 2013; DOI: 10.1177/0956797612462222

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