Stress How Your Inability to Handle the 'Minor Hassles of Life' on a Daily Basis Affects Your Health

Article excerpt

When it comes to stress, it's better to be Teflon than Velcro.

Don't let stress stick to you like fuzzy stuff to Velcro. Let it slide away, like a cooked pancake off a Teflon skillet.

Such advice is warranted, given stress's dramatic effect on American health, even if it isn't as dire as the health problems caused by smoking, obesity and poor diet.

Local psychologists -- with Pittsburgh serving as a national epicenter of stress research -- long have known that chronic stress causes psychological ailments such as depression, anxiety and anger. But "reactivity" to stress -- or the overreaction to stress -- gets physical and can lead to cardiovascular and infectious diseases and the worsening of autoimmune diseases and HIV/AIDS cases.

It even makes people more susceptible to the common cold.

But it gets even worse.

Until recently, studies focused on chronic stress from sexual abuse, irascible personal or family relationships, long-term care of a sick child or family member, post-traumatic stress disorder or long-standing unemployment, underemployment or employment in a hostile workplace.

Now a Penn State University study says a person's inability to handle the "minor hassles of life" on a daily basis -- a pending deadline, unpaid bills, road rage, a burdensome chore or a spat with a loved one or colleague -- also affects health.

In 1995, the Penn State research team interviewed 435 participants each day for eight days to gauge the stress levels they experienced and their reactions to the stress. The team also did saliva tests to measure their levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. A decade later, in 2005, the team repeated the testing regimen.

Published recently in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine, the study found emotional reactivity to daily stress was "associated with an increased risk" that a participant would report a chronic physical health condition 10 years later.

"Results indicate that people's reactions to daily stressors are predictive of future chronic health conditions," the study states.

In a key finding, "minor hassles" of daily life can take a toll on health, independent of what chronic stress can cause.

"Daily stressors are less severe than chronic stressors, but they are nonetheless associated with adverse same-day physical health outcomes," the study says, noting the occurrence of fatigue, sore throat, headache and backache. It also worsens illness-related symptoms for those with chronic health conditions, including increased pain sensitivity for those who get tension headaches, elevated joint pain for those with rheumatoid arthritis and worsening of psoriasis, among other impacts.

Reactivity to daily hassles also can lead to hypertension, stressful social interactions that increase the risk for metabolic syndrome that's a precursor to type 2 diabetes and even cardiovascular disease. The study says the problem isn't stress but a person's reaction to it.

Velcro and Teflon types face daily stress. But Velcro types respond more emotionally and have problems letting the moment pass. For them, every unit increase in stressor reactivity results in a rise of 10 percent in the risk that participants in the study would report a chronic health condition 10 years later.

"I think our activities of daily life have evolved faster than body physiology," said David M. Almeida, a doctor of psychology at Penn State's Center for Healthy Aging, and the study leader. "We are trying to determine who the Teflon people are and who the Velcro people are. Not surprisingly, people who have more financial and socioeconomic resources are more likely to be Teflon people. They also are less neurotic and have higher levels of cognitive skills."

Easygoing types also have less stress, the Penn State psychologist said. People raised with warm parental relationships and higher levels of education, and those who are clever and quick to solve problems, encounter fewer problems with stress. …

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