From work demands to family responsibilities to social expectations, most of us spend our lives bouncing from one stressor to another, all the while contending with a continuous onslaught of digital information feeds. True relaxation can be hard to find, even with an ever-growing variety of books, classes, products and apps marketed as remedies to keep us healthy and happy in the face of it all.
But how much and in what ways do the stresses of our daily lives actually impact our health over the long term? Researcher David Almeida, professor of human development and family studies at Penn State, has spent several decades asking this very question. He shared some of his findings in the latest episode of the Penn State Center for Human Evolution and Diversity’s podcast, Tracking Traits.
According to Almedia, some of his findings are quite surprising, including a range of positive effects attributed to stress — none of which are widely recognized or discussed.
“One of the positive aspects of stress is that it'll alert you to a challenge,” Almeida siad. “It makes you more vigilant. It makes you try to solve the challenge. We found that people who experience daily stress in their lives, as they grow older, they actually are better at cognitive functioning. So, there could be something about stress that helps you solve problems. That might be good for your brains. That's something that we're really interested in.”
Almeida said he considers himself a lifespan psychologist, focusing his research on various psychological changes mapped over long periods of time in the lives of individual subjects.
“As David shares in this podcast, the more we understand the relationship of daily stressors to our health, the more empowered we are to take actions that can minimize the negative effects,” said Mark Shriver, co-director of Center for Human Evolution and Diversity. “He’s a true pioneer in this field.”
Almeida was interviewed about his unique research methods and findings by Kassi Bradburn, a Penn State undergrad double majoring in forensic science with a biology option and biobehavioral health with a minor in chemistry. As a busy student, Bradburn had a lot of personal anecdotes to share with Alemida about the daily stressors in her own life. And she could relate when Almeida shared another positive aspect of stress — the way it acts as a social magnet that draws people together to seek support when met with daunting challenges.
“My classmates and I, when we have major projects or exams coming up and we're all into this little group discussing how stressed we are over finding research articles or getting a certain lab done — being able to share it and realize that you're not alone in that experience is a major benefit,” Bradburn said.
In the course of Bradburn’s conversation with Almeida, two key components of stress were emphasized: the stressors themselves and individuals’ reactions to the stressors. Almeida’s long-term studies have shown that it’s not the first, but the second of these factors that can have profound health effects. In other words, health effects are not about how much stress we have in our daily lives, but rather how we individually respond to them.
Almeida also shared his evolutionary perspective on our stress responses, which may help to explain why we have yet to really adapt physiologically to modern-day abstract stressors, as opposed to the more direct, physical stressors encountered by our ancestors hundreds or thousands of years ago.
Finally, Almeida chimed in on the current state and imminent future of wearable technology — like Apple watches — that sense human stress signals in real time and send automated messages to the stressed out individual to prompt healthy responses like conscious breathing or taking walks out in nature.
“The Health Effects of Stress as We Age” is available on all major podcast platforms. The Tracking Traits podcast is a production of the Center for Human Evolution and Diversity, and features Penn State undergrads interviewing researchers about their work and personal passions. New episodes are released monthly.
The Center for Human Evolution and Diversity is housed within the Department of Anthropology in Penn State’s College of Liberal Arts, with support from the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences.