Thursday, July 25, 2013

Optimists Better at Regulating Stress

This probably sounds like a no-brainer, but in science, conclusions like this have to be quantifiable and reproducible by researchers working elsewhere.

Which someone has finally accomplished.  Joelle Jobin, a PhD candidate in clinical psychology at Concordia University's Department of Psychology co-authored the study with her supervisor Carsten Wrosch and Michael Scheier from Carnegie Mellon University.  Ms. Jobin came up with a study that measured cortisol, aka the "stress hormone", at various times of the day and correlated hormone levels with how study subjects were responding to events during their day.

Results show that indeed the "stress hormone" cortisol tends to be more stable in those with more positive personalities.

The study, recently published in the American Psychological Association's Health Psychology journal, tracked 135 older adults (aged 60+) over six years, and involved collecting saliva samples five times a day to monitor cortisol levels. This age group was selected because older adults often face a number of age-related stressors and their cortisol levels have been shown to increase.

Ms. Jobin explains that "for some people, going to the grocery store on a Saturday morning can be very stressful, so that's why we asked people how often they felt stressed or overwhelmed during the day and compared people to their own averages, then analyzed their responses by looking at the stress levels over many days."

She also notes that pessimists tended to have a higher stress baseline than optimists, but also had trouble regulating their system when they go through particularly stressful situations. "On days where they experience higher than average stress, that's when we see that the pessimists' stress response is much elevated, and they have trouble bringing their cortisol levels back down. Optimists, by contrast, were protected in these circumstances," says Jobin.

While the study generally confirmed the researchers' hypotheses about the relation between optimism and stress, one surprising finding was that optimists who generally had more stressful lives secreted higher cortisol levels than expected shortly after they awoke (cortisol peaks just after waking and declines through the day). Jobin says there are several possible explanations, but also notes that the finding points to the difficulty of classifying these complex hormones as good or bad. "The problem with cortisol is that we call it "the stress hormone," but it's also our 'get up and do things' hormone, so we may secrete more if engaged and focused on what's happening."

Story Source:  Joelle Jobin, Carsten Wrosch, Michael F. Scheier. Associations Between Dispositional Optimism and Diurnal Cortisol in a Community Sample: When Stress Is Perceived as Higher Than Normal. Health Psychology, 2013.

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