Predicting the future

As I mentioned last week (in the DispatchWho wants to be boss?”) stress is very subjective and can be difficult to define from one individual to another. But it’s important to keep in mind that stress itself isn’t what causes health problems, but our reactions to it—how we process our feelings and handle stress. In fact, researchers at Penn State just discovered that how you handle stress today impacts your health 10 years from now.

The MIDUS study (which stands for “Midlife in the United States”) examined 2,000 participants to determine how they handled stress in 1995 and again in 2005. And believe it or not, this study was funded by NIH. Surprisingly,  the method of the study actually made a great leap forward in measuring stress.

Normally, stress studies just ask people to give accounts of life events and stress in the past. But these researchers called each of the 2,000 participants every night for eight nights in a row, and asked them to recall exactly what happened to them and how they felt about it over the prior 24 hours.

Typical stressors reported in this study were simply things like being stuck in traffic, having an argument with someone, or having a child get sick. The sorts of things we all deal with on a daily basis. And short of escaping to a desert island, almost nobody can avoid these kinds of stressors. But the key is how you process them.

So what did they find?

They found they could divide people into two types. “Velcro” types, who get upset over stressful daily events, and at the end of the day, are still fussing and fuming about them. And “Teflon” types, who let the stressors slide of by simply not responding or recalling them.

Not surprisingly, the Velcro types ended up with more health problems ten years later, particularly chronic pain, arthritis, and cardiovascular problems. 

There are other factors also that influence how you process stress according to the Penn State study.  People older than 65 years tend to be more reactive to stressors. Which may be, in part, because they have been able to learn what their greatest sources of stress are (as individuals) and eliminate as many of them as possible. So when they are exposed to stress, it impacts them more compared to  younger people who are unavoidably surrounded by stresses over which they have no control. In other words, younger people may be better at dealing with stress because they have to. 

All of this is an interesting step and certainly meets the test of common sense. But in my own research with Mike Jawar, we found that there aren’t just two types out there. The way people process their feelings actually varies along a spectrum, called the “personality boundary” spectrum. Where you fall on that spectrum is your “emotional type.”

Your unique emotional type can give you a great deal of insight into which common medical problems you are more likely to get, and which of the many common mind-body therapies are more likely to work best for you. So that you can keep stress from stealing your health—and your future.

For more information, refer to Your Emotional Type by Mike Jawer and me (available at your local bookstore, or online).