A Healthy Way to Handle Everyday Stress

Sweating the small stuff can have a big impact on your health. Find out why -- plus easy ways to calm down.

Medically reviewed in July 2021

An aggravating work email; a spat with your spouse; the dog gets sick, making you late for work … While little stressors like these are part of everyday life, your reaction to them can make a big difference in your health.  

Researchers from the Center for Healthy Aging and Department of Biobehavioral Health at Penn State found that if your response to stress is consistently negative, your levels of inflammation may rise. And long-term inflammation can be deadly: It plays a role in heart disease, asthma, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer and more.

In a study of 872 adults, Penn State researchers looked at the way in which minor stressors were handled and how those responses affected bodily inflammation. Participants were interviewed by phone each day for eight days and reported events such as getting into or trying to avoid arguments, something stressful happening to a loved one, discrimination and more. They also rated their emotions. At a clinic visit, blood samples were taken and examined for inflammation.

The results showed that adults who didn’t stay calm or remain in a positive mood after a stressful event had higher levels of inflammation -- and the levels depended more on the individual’s emotional reaction to the stress, not the frequency of it.

Jennifer E. Graham-Engeland, associate professor of biobehavioral health at Penn State noted that the study was one of the first of its kind to link responses to daily stressors with biomarkers for inflammation.

Reframe Negative Thoughts
Realistically speaking, “it’s impossible to expect that you’ll remain positive no matter what happens during the day,” says psychologist Alice Domar, PhD. Still, there are things you can do to help short circuit negative thinking and an automatic stress response. Here are Dr. Domar’s suggestions:

  • Check in with yourself each morning: “Before you get going, stop and ask yourself, ‘How am I doing right now?’ Try to do something to set the tone for the day.” Things like an early workout, meditating or taking the time to read an article that interests you can help you start the day in a more positive frame of mind.
  • Nurture yourself: “We tend to have a delayed gratification,” says Domar.  “We’ll tell ourselves, if I get through the day I’ll have a glass of wine or chocolate. But that sets up an expectation that the day will be bad.” Instead, give yourself little rewards throughout the day. “I like reading email jokes that people send,” says Domar.  “But I don’t let myself read one until, say, I’ve finished an hour’s worth of work.”
  • Don’t think in “all or nothing” terms: “If your boss says something about your performance, don’t automatically go to ‘my boss hates me, I’m going to get fired,’” she says. “It may not be about you. Bosses have bad days, too.”  But if you’ve made a mistake, learn from it. “You need to be realistic about what happens,” says Domar.
  • Find your happy activity: Figure out what shifts your mood from being stressed and negative to being okay. Is it exercise? Is it dancing or being silly? Do what works for you.
  • Don’t stress over what you can’t change: “Try to control the things you can control and let go of the things you can’t,” Domar says. While that may be easier said than done – it’s worth the effort for your overall health and well-being.  

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