For some people, the greatest toll from stress may come not from a divorce, the loss of a job, or other major traumatic events, but from the minor yet frequent annoyances they experience daily—getting stuck in traffic, having an argument at work, noise from a neighbor. Besides their psychological effects, these relatively unimportant but cumulative daily upsets or hassles can harm physical health—increasing the risk of high blood pressure, asthma attacks, even chest pain—depending largely on how people perceive and cope with them.
Recently, in a study in Psychosomatic Medicine, researchers from Penn State and Columbia University examined the potential health effects of daily stressful events. They focused on how such hassles and irritants affect heart rate variability (HRV), which is the variation in intervals between heartbeats. Higher HRV is a sign of the heart’s ability to respond to challenges and, more generally, of a healthy autonomic nervous system, which regulates bodily functions. Depression and other negative emotional states are associated with lower HRV, and it’s theorized that this may be one way they increase cardiovascular risk.
For the study, more than 900 people, ages 35 to 85, had their resting HRV measured with electrocardiograms. Then for eight consecutive days they were interviewed about how many stressful events they experienced. They were asked to rate how stressful they perceived each event to be and to rate the negative emotions, such as anger and sadness, they had each day.
Though the frequency of stressful daily events was not related to HRV, participants who perceived the events (however many they reported) as more severe and reported more negative reactions had lower HRV, on average, than those who were better equipped to handle day-to-day challenges. “Although hassles and disruptions are common and often unavoidable, how a person responds to these seemingly minor stressors is important for cardiovascular health,” the researchers concluded.
Bottom line: Hassles are largely subjective. What one person experiences as a hassle may be a non-event for another person—or a major crisis. Your perception of and response to a particular event depend on your background, personality, coping mechanisms, and what the rest of the day was like, as well as what actually happened. The good news is that while hassles are unavoidable in daily life, we can often do something about our reactions to them and thus the effect they may have on our health. The key to lessening the burden of daily hassles is to strengthen coping mechanisms—for instance, by anger management, self-efficacy training, or relaxation techniques such as meditation and exercise.