Chronic, daily stress does more than put you on edge day-to-day. In the long run, it can lead to potentially severe mental health problems — and its impacts are cumulative.
That’s the key finding of new research by University of California-Irvine psychologists who tracked the mental-health impacts of chronic stress on more than 700 men and women. The study, published online in the journal Psychological Science, suggests that maintaining emotional balance is crucial to avoiding severe mental health problems down the road.
“How we manage daily emotions matters to our overall mental health,” Susan Charles, a UC-Irvine professor of psychology and social behavior who led the study. “We're so focused on long-term goals that we don't see the importance of regulating our emotions. Changing how you respond to stress and how you think about stressful situations is as important as maintaining a healthy diet and exercise routine.”
Charles said she and her colleagues sought to answer a long-standing question: Do everyday annoyances add up to “make the straw that breaks the camel's back” when it comes to mental health, or do they make us stronger and “inoculate” us against stressful situations and make it easier to cope with them over time?
Using information from two national surveys, the researchers found negative emotional responses to daily stressors — such as arguments with a spouse or partner, conflicts at work, standing in long lines, or sitting in traffic — were strongly tied to serious psychological distress, anxiety, and mood disorders 10 years later.
The results were based on the experiences of Americans, between 25 and 74 years of age, who participated in the National Study of Daily Experiences and the Midlife Development in the United States project.
Charles said the results show major life events — such as a job loss or the death of a loved one — are not the only stressors that can affect our mental health; even seemingly minor emotional experiences can take a toll on long-term psychological well-being.
“It's important not to let everyday problems ruin your moments,” Charles said. “After all, moments add up to days, and days add up to years. Unfortunately, people don't see mental health problems as such until they become so severe that they require professional attention.”
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