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Are Negative Emotions Universally Bad for Our Health?

Culture’s role in the pathway between emotions and biological health outcomes.

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Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured,” wrote Mark Twain, echoing one of the prevailing narratives we hold about our psychological worlds: Negative emotions are bad for our mental and physical health. Indeed, numerous studies have explored the trail of wreckage that negative emotions can unleash on our bodies. These include inflammation, weaker immune response, and increased risk for heart disease. However, a recent study shows that these well-documented adverse effects may not be universal. Instead, how harmful negative emotions can be for our health may be moderated by our cultures.

The study

To explore the link between negative affect and health outcomes across cultures, researchers measured levels of the stress hormone cortisol among American and Japanese participants. Salivary samples were gathered multiple times a day, over three to four consecutive days. Participants in both cultures were also asked to rate their experience of various negative emotions within the past 30 days. To assess the participants’ biological health, researchers explored four biomarkers—two related to inflammatory activity (IL-6 and CRP) and two related to cardiovascular status (systolic blood pressure and the ratio of total-to-HDL cholesterol).

The adrenal gland releases cortisol in response to stress, in order to summon the body’s resources to meet the demands of the environment. Typically, cortisol levels follow a distinct rhythm: they escalate 50-60 percent upon waking in the morning and gradually continue to drop until bedtime. However, the “wear-and-tear” from persistent or acute stress can affect this rhythm. Because cortisol has an important regulatory function in various brain and body systems, disturbances in these secretion patterns throughout the day can be implicated in health outcomes. For instance, a flatter diurnal cortisol slope has been associated with adverse health effects, including depression and fatigue.

In the present study, researchers found that for the American participants, greater negative effects were associated with the flattening of diurnal cortisol rhythm. This finding, in support with previous research, was linked to increased health risks as assessed by a composite index of biomarkers (i.e. inflammation and cardiovascular function). For the Japanese participants, even despite reporting negative affect more often than Americans, this link was negligible.

Differences in emotion construal across cultures

Where do these differences come from? How can culture be implicated in the pathways linking our emotions with our health outcomes? As the study suggests, one possible explanation could be found in our understanding of emotions.

Western cultures, such as the United States, foster an independent construal of the self. Emotions are viewed as being closely tied to one’s inner attributes and one’s own responsibility. Well-being is commonly pursued by accruing and maximizing positive effects. Hence, negative emotions may be often considered as “unwanted” and “to be avoided” for their well-being hindering nature. Moreover, negative emotions may be construed as “harmful” since they may reflect a threat to the self and one’s ability to cope with the demands of the environment. This sense of perceived threat may, in turn, contribute to the activation of a stress response, and eventually, undermine health outcomes.

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On the other hand, in Asian cultures folk theories about emotions tend to be ingrained in historically dialectical traditions of Buddhism and Confucianism. This view offers a more balanced space for both positive and negative emotions to co-exist. Rather than being mutually exclusive, positive and negative emotions are considered “interconnected” and “cyclical” and are more influenced by situational and relational contexts, than the individual’s internal attributes and responsibility. This understanding of negative emotions as relatively benign, fleeting components of normative existence, may make their daily experience less stressful, in turn, buffering against some of their ill-effects on physical health.

One thing that unites us around the world is that we all experience a wide spectrum of emotions. But as recent research shows, our beliefs about emotions can influence not only how we manage and interpret them, but also how our emotions can affect our biological health. Understanding the cultural aspect of these mechanisms may present vital insights into the complexity of the mind-body connection.


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