Daily stress levels make a huge difference in the quality of our lives. From our emotional state to our immune system to our mental and physical health and even our longevity, our well-being is profoundly affected by how often we encounter stressful situations in our everyday lives and how much internal tension we feel in response to them.
How do those factors change over the course of our lives? A new study aimed to find out. By looking at stress patterns in groups of adult of all ages, they discovered that stress, generally, gets easier to take over time.
“Finally, there’s some good news about stress, which is that we get better at it as we age,” says lead author David Almeida, who’s been studying stress for decades. It’s a finding that can reveal a simple truth to people of all ages: bouncing back from stressful events is a skill that we can develop with practice.
Stress at different stages
To uncover this pattern, Almeida and his team randomly selected about 1,400 adult participants of different ages from the National Study of Daily Experiences (NSDE)—a large, ongoing study, where thousands of American adults report on their daily life and how they are doing mentally and physically. The adults were interviewed every day for eight straight days and asked whether they’d experienced any “stressors” that day—things like having an argument (or having to avoid one), work overload, a computer glitch, discrimination, and more. Then they reported how they were feeling that day (in terms of positive and negative emotions).
These interviews were repeated twice for the same group of adults about nine years apart over a 20-year period, giving the researchers rich information about how often people experienced stress in their everyday lives. By comparing people’s feelings on days with and without stressors, researchers could also determine how much people suffered emotionally on a stressful day—whether they were resilient or not. And they could look at how stress affected people of different age groups at one point in time and consider how an individual’s stress trajectory changed as they aged.
After taking into account people’s gender, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status, Almeida found that their well-being declined on stressful days—no big surprise there. He also found that people had fewer stressful days in their lives and handled their stress significantly better as they aged, at least up to a point. At around midlife, people’s resiliency to stress stayed constant—meaning, it remained high, but didn’t improve further—even as the number of stressful days they experienced continued to decline.
Why would older people suffer less from stress? For one thing, says Almeida, people learn from experience; so, as we get older, we have more opportunities to learn to deal with stress more effectively. For another, we tend to see our time on earth as more limited as we age, so that helps us focus on maximizing our experience (and letting stressors slide off our backs more).
Our social roles matter, too, says Almeida. Younger adults tend to face more stressors simply because they are in a phase of life when they are starting careers, seeking life partners, becoming parents, and figuring out how to “make it” in life. Multiple developmental tasks create conflict and strain, which can make for a more stressful time of life.
How demographics shape stress
Still, even among young adults, there is some good news: Their ability to handle stress well increases rapidly over the first decade of adulthood—much more rapidly than at older ages. This means that their stressors, even if unpleasant, will be managed better as they age, too.
“Those [young adult roles] combined give you more sources of stress, and because you’re new to them, you’re probably not as good at handling them” says Almeida. “As you grow older, though, you get better at not reacting.”
Of course, this doesn’t mean everyone gets better at handling stress—or that only the young face high levels of stress. On average, older adults may have fewer new developmental roles to master; but some will still experience the unique stressor of caregiving, which can take a big toll on someone’s well-being. Almeida suspects that increased caregiving responsibilities in later years may explain why he and his team found that people’s resilience to stress starts to level off in their mid-50’s.
It’s also possible that we encounter more physical limitations (like hearing loss or arthritis) as we age, and that can make life more stressful, too, he adds, So, we shouldn’t assume that everything is rosy for all seniors, even if they have learned to be more resilient.
“We need to be mindful of our limitations as we grow older, as well as the particular strengths we have,” he says.
Plus, age is not the only thing that affects people’s stressors and resilience to stress. In the study, Almeida found that someone with less education or lower socioeconomic status tended to report fewer stressors—a surprise to him—but had worse stress reactivity. Women also reported less resilience on stressful days than men did, and they experienced more stressful days, too.
Though Almeida’s study didn’t investigate the reasons why this might be, he speculates that some people have fewer opportunities to soothe stress when it arises, perhaps because of the demands of their jobs or the ongoing nature of their stressors. If that’s that case, women or the economically disadvantaged might have less time or freedom to do things others might do to recover from stress, like go on a walk or practice meditation or take a vacation.
“If I lived in a very chronically stressful situation—like, if I was a caregiver or had a highly stressful job that I didn’t have any control over—I would need changes at a policy/structural level rather than at the individual level,” says Almeida.
The special importance of resilience
Results from this study fit into a larger body of work that Almeida has done over the decades to better understand stress and its effects on health and happiness. Not only do these findings show that stressors change over our lifetime, they suggest stress resiliency may be independent of how many stressors you face at any given time.
“It’s very rare for the number of stressful experiences to be associated with indicators of health and well-being—from minor physical health symptoms to chronic health conditions to even things like morbidity and mortality,” he says. “There’s something about being really grumpy on a stressful day versus a non-stressful day that is predictive of health and well-being later on.”
Having a “stress-free life” is not good for our health, either, says Almeida. In another study of his, where people reported on their daily stressors, 10% of the people surveyed reported zero stressors over the course of their study. But, while they experienced some benefits because of that, they also had worse cognitive health. Some stress is good for our well-being, he says, partly because stress is part of a rich life with stronger social networks—something good for happiness, health, and longevity, too.
“When people report having a stressor, they’re more likely to have social interactions that involve receiving social support,” he says. “So, there are some positive aspects of actually experiencing a stressor.”
Still, Almeida doesn’t suggest that we need to purposefully stress ourselves—more that we take our emotional lives seriously. If stressed people could receive targeted interventions to help them tip their feelings in a more positive direction, he says, it could lessen some of the negative effects on our health and well-being.
“If we could figure out how stressed someone is on a given day, based on how they’re reporting, and send them an intervention right then and there, that would be so helpful. I’m hopeful that might happen someday.”