Thursday, April 14, 2016

Let it go: Reaction to stress more important than its frequency

Of course, a person's brain structure and functioning will affect one's reactions, as will prior experiences. How you react to a noise that might be a gun shot or might be a fire cracker will be different if you have ever been shot.

Public Release: 25-Feb-2016
Let it go: Reaction to stress more important than its frequency
Penn State

How you perceive and react to stressful events is more important to your health than how frequently you encounter stress, according to health researchers from Penn State and Columbia University.

It is known that stress and negative emotions can increase the risk of heart disease, but the reasons why are not well understood. One potential pathway linking stress to future heart disease is a dysregulation of the autonomic nervous system -- a case of a person's normally self-regulated nervous system getting off track.

Nancy L. Sin and colleagues wanted to find out if daily stress and heart rate variability -- a measure of autonomic regulation of the heart -- are linked. Heart rate variability is the variation in intervals between consecutive heartbeats.

"Higher heart rate variability is better for health as it reflects the capacity to respond to challenges," said Sin, postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Healthy Aging and in the department of biobehavioral health at Penn State. "People with lower heart rate variability have a greater risk of cardiovascular disease and premature death."


The researchers found that participants who reported a lot of stressful events in their lives were not necessarily those who had lower heart rate variability. No matter how many or how few stressful events a person faces it was those who perceived the events as more stressful or who experienced a greater spike in negative emotions that had lower heart rate variability -- meaning these people may be at a higher 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," said Sin. "This adds to the evidence that minor hassles might pile up to influence health. We hope these findings will help inform the development of interventions to improve well-being in daily life and to promote better health."

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