The Undoing of Stress

Promising research on stress recovery.

Posted Dec 13, 2011

The holidays have a fairly well-deserved reputation for being stressful. There are increased demands on our time and resources, including work and social events, family gatherings, finding the perfect gifts, decorating, travel and all of this is on top of our regular daily duties. At baseline, many of us are functioning near the capacity of our resources and the extra load at this time of year, even if some of the tasks are fun and enjoyable, can be almost too much to bear.

Psychologists have long known that there are individual differences in how persons react to stress. In other words, we are not all the same. Indeed, there are those among us who are calmer than others. For some, equilibrium appears to be a natural state of affairs. If you have ever noticed these maddeningly balanced souls, you may also have pondered the secret of their success. What do they know that the rest of us do not?

Fascinating work reveals that it may not be what they know about stress but what they feel. Cutting-edge research is proving how daily emotions fluctuate in relation to stress.

Not surprisingly, stress is a downer. Negative moods such as anxiety, guilt, and sadness tend to increase after stress. This is a ubiquitous finding. Even your very balanced, happy-go-lucky friend gets down when daily hassles mount or catastrophe strikes.

What is more exciting is to track differences in the recovery from these negative moods after stress. There are fascinating ideas that positive moods can help "undo" the negative consequences of stress. These ideas are not new and in fact have been promulgated by some of the most talented positive psychology investigators of our time, such as Sonja Lyubomirksy, Alex Zautra, and Barbara Fredrickson.

What is exciting is how these ideas are playing out in studies of daily emotions of midlife adults. Positive emotions have more variable links with stress than negative emotions. That is, our positive moods do not always drop precipitously with stress, at least not for all persons. Given that positive moods are somewhat "freed" from the effects of stress, they may provide a resource to aid in recovery. Fascinating research by Anthony Ong and colleagues, for example, recently published in Health Psychology, demonstrates that positive emotions may help to protect against chronic physiological stress after bereavement.

Discoveries about the protective effects of positive moods are in their infancy but there is promise to unlock secrets about coping with adversity and daily hassle. Whereas there are lucky persons who may naturally harness the recovery powers of positive moods, there is hope that what is learned about emotions and stress can lead to interventions to help the rest of us undo the negative consequences of stress. Then, we can relax and enjoy the peace and gifts of this wonderful season.

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