Life is stressful. We all know that. The difference is how we react to it.
Some people thrive amid chaos. Others feel worse in stressful situations, and find that the best way to deal with stressful situations is to try to avoid them. And those reactions—not the situations that cause them—could spell major differences for long-term well-being.
That’s because your health is impacted less by how often you confront stressful situations, and more by how you react to them, according to research from Penn State University and Columbia University.
Researchers already know that stress—and the negative emotions tied to it—can increase your risk of heart disease, but no one knows exactly why that’s the case. Researchers believe one potential cause might be that stress throws off your nervous system, which in turn throws off your cardiovascular system. The best measure of that neurological-cardio link is heart rate variability, a measure of the variation in the time between heartbeats. A low variability means your heart is hammering along at a consistent pace, while a high variability means the pattern varies in duration, so your nervous system is naturally keeping your heart rate regulated.
“Higher heart rate variability…reflects the capacity to respond to challenges,” study author Nancy Sin said in a press release. “People with lower heart rate variability have a greater risk of cardiovascular disease and premature death.” (This might sound counterintuitive, so just remember that really stressed person’s heartbeat will sound extremely consistent—like a machine—as a reaction to that stress. That’s low variability.)
In the study, published in Psychosomatic Medicine, the researchers collected data from 909 participants between the ages of 35 and 85 by conducting daily telephone interviews over eight consecutive days and gathering results from an electrocardiogram (EKG), a test that checks for problems with the electrical activity of your heart.
During the daily interviews, participants discussed any stressful events they experienced that day, rating how taxing each event was by choosing “not at all,” “not very,” “somewhat,” or “very” stressful. The men and women were also asked about their negative emotions—such as feeling angry, sad, and nervous—that day.
On average, participants had at least one stressful experience on 42 percent of the eight interview days. Generally, these experiences were rated as “somewhat” stressful.
Interestingly enough, the researchers found participants who reported many stressful events weren’t necessarily the ones with lower heart rate variability (which translates to a higher risk of heart disease and early death). Rather, people who perceived events as more stressful or who experienced a greater spike in negative emotions had lower heart rate variability.
“These results tell us that a person’s perceptions and emotional reactions to stressful events are more important than exposure to stress per se,” Sin said. “This adds to the evidence that minor hassles might pile up to influence health.
So: How exactly do you perceive stressful events in a positive, healthy way? “Take a step back and re-assess how important this stressful experience is in the big picture, and cultivate supportive relationships so you have people to rely on for emotional support,” Sin says. “There’s also an abundance of research showing healthy lifestyles—including physical activity, good sleep, and a healthy diet—are important for both mental and physical health, and these health behaviors might buffer against the harmful effects of stress.”
You can also check out our 20 Science-Backed Ways to Reduce Stress.