How You Handle Stress Is More Important Than How Frequently It Occurs, Study Shows

Common wisdom holds that there's no sense in worrying about what you can't change, but often, that's easier said than done. According to a recent study, though, all those inspirational Instagram quotes might be on to something: Researchers have found that how you handle stress may have a bigger impact on your health than how frequently it occurs.

The stress of major factors like depression and life events — illness, changing careers, death of a loved one, and so on — have long been shown to have detrimental effects on your physical health over time, but little research has been done on the effects of smaller stressors. To see if everyday stress has a physical impact, researchers at Penn State and Columbia measured the relationship between heart rate variability (HRV), or the variation in time between heartbeats, and reported stressful events. A higher HRV suggests that your heart is more capable of responding to different environments, which is an indicator of better health; low HRV has been linked to a higher risk of heart disease.

In the study, volunteers participated in daily phone interviews over the course of eight days, in which they were asked to report and rate the intensity of stressful events of the past 24 hours. Overall, 42 percent of volunteers reported such events every day; typically, these were rated as "somewhat" stressful.

Here's where it gets interesting: The participants that reported the most stressful events weren't necessarily the ones with the lowest HRV — in other words, the amount of stress wasn't correlated with poor physical health. Rather, those who rated their events as the most stressful or who experienced the most intensely negative emotions were the ones with the lowest HRV, which could put them at the highest risk for heart disease.

"These results tell us that a person's perceptions and emotional reactions to stressful events are more important than exposure to stress per se," researcher Nancy L. Sin said in Science Daily.

Decades of research show that stress has a whole range of negative effects associated with it, from tension headaches to a weakened immune system. Unfortunately, modern society — and especially the American variety — isn't exactly known for its totally chillaxed environment, so learning to let go of stress may take some practice.

So, to recap: As tempting as it is to assume the world is ending every time you miss a deadline at work or have a fight with your best friend, science is here to tell you to chill out a little. Of course, this doesn't apply to people with anxiety disorders; feel free to seriously side-eye anyone who tells you to "just relax" in that case. But for everyone else, it can't hurt to try to take it down a notch. It's easier to say than it is to put into practice, but your heart will thank you for it.

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