Ongoing stress is looking like an increasingly guilty suspect in sabotaging people’s health. The American Psychological Association now cites chronic stress as a risk factor for heath disease, high blood pressure and stroke.
But does chronic stress have the same effects on everyone? Probably not. A recent study by researchers at Yale and University of Cincinnati suggests that well developed emotional regulation skills might weaken the correlation between chronic stress and poorer cardiovascular health.
The researchers came to this conclusion by following 754 adults over a period of five years. The researchers tracked several measures of these people’s cardiovascular health, such as blood pressure and BMI. They also interviewed these people about their experiences of stress and adverse life events.
Finally, the researchers measured participants’ abilities in regulating their emotions. They did so using a questionnaire called the Difficulties in Emotion Regulation Scale. Some examples of questions on the “DERS” are:
- I am clear about my feelings
- When I’m upset, my emotions feel overwhelming
Someone with high levels of emotion regulation would tend to agree with the first question while someone who struggles with emotion regulation would be more likely to relate to the second. Using emotion regulation scores, the researchers divided participants into two groups – those in the top 50 percent of emotion regulation and those in the bottom 50 percent.
When they looked at the link between stress and cardiovascular health for people in these two groups, they found an interesting pattern. For people in the lower half of emotion regulation, the expected link between stress and health was apparent, with those who had experienced more stress having worse cardiovascular health.
For people with above-average emotion regulation skills, however, the same was not true. In fact, researchers found no link between total stress and cardiovascular health in this group. In other words, it may be that good emotion regulation skills protected these people from at least some of the negative health effects of chronic stress.
This research isn’t an excuse for people to cut corners in stress management. On the whole, it’s likely that limiting the amount of stress in your life is still healthier, no matter how good your ability to regulate your emotions is.
But it does suggest that people might be able to reduce some of stress’s harmful effects by honing their emotion management skills. As the researchers point out, emotion regulation is a “teachable skill.” So on top of practices like exercising and keeping a healthy diet, we might be able to add learning emotion regulation techniques as a step people can take to improve their health.