Don't Stress Out: Optimism Helps You Deal With Stress
July 24, 2013

Biologically, Optimists Regulate Stress Better Than Pessimists

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

It has long been assumed people with an optimistic view of life are better at dealing with high pressure situations, but now researchers from Concordia University's Department of Psychology have discovered a link between a positive outlook and an individual's biological stress response.

Joelle Jobin, a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology who co-wrote the study with her supervisor Carsten Wrosch and colleague Michael Scheier from Carnegie Mellon University, report the so-called stress hormone cortisol tends to be more stable in those with more optimistic personalities.

Their research, which appears in a recent edition of the journal Health Psychology, deepens the psychological community's understanding of the differences in the ways that optimists and pessimists handle stress by comparing them to themselves, not to the other personality type, the researchers explained.

Jobin and her associates followed 135 adults over the age of 60 for a period of six years, collecting saliva samples from their subjects five times each day in order to track their cortisol levels. This specific age group was chosen because seniors typically face a number of age-related stressors, which have been shown to cause their cortisol levels to become elevated.

Each participant was asked to report on the perceived stress level they experienced during the course of their day-to-day lives, and were also asked to self-identify themselves along a continuum as being optimistic or pessimistic. Their stress levels were then regularly compared to their own averages.

According to the study authors, this provided a "real world" picture of how people manage stress, as those individuals can become accustomed to the typical amount of stress they face in their daily lives.

"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," Jobin said in a statement.

She added pessimists were more likely to have a higher stress baseline than optimists, and were more likely to have problems regulating their systems when they experience especially stressful events.

"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," Jobin said. "Optimists, by contrast, were protected in these circumstances."

Although the study's findings generally confirmed the researchers' hypotheses regarding the link between stress and optimism, one surprise the authors did uncover was positive individuals who typically had more stressful lives secreted higher levels of cortisone shortly after waking up. This is the peak time for the hormone's release, as it tends to decrease during the day, and Jobin said there are several possible explanations for this phenomenon.

However, she also said the finding points to the theory of how difficult it is to describe 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," Jobin noted.