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Study: Life's petty annoyances may take a long-term toll on mental health

File: Traffic comes to a stand still on the northbound and the southbound lanes of the Interstate 405 freeway near Los Angeles International Airport.
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Stuck in a traffic jam? The UC Irvine-led study suggests you should just breathe deeply and relax. It will be better for your mental health in the long run.

The saying goes, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”  But new research suggests that may not prove true for everyone.

A UC Irvine-led study (conducted with researchers at Cal State Fullerton and Penn State) finds that stress from life’s seemingly petty irritations – be it a traffic jam, a bickering spouse or an annoying colleague – may exact a significant negative toll on your long-term mental health, depending upon how you respond. 

“People should take their emotional lives as seriously as they do other aspects of their health,” says the study’s lead researcher, Susan Charles, a UCI professor of psychology and social behavior.

For the study, Charles and her colleagues used data from two national longitudinal surveys of  711 men and women, aged 25 to 74. The researchers  found that how the respondents  handled daily emotional stress predicted whether they would experience anxiety and depression up to a decade later.  

The study, published in the online journal Psychological Science,  suggests how we handle and think about the irritations life serves up has as great an impact on our mental well-being as a healthy diet and exercise have on our physical health.

 “What our findings suggest is that for our overall health we cannot ignore the daily emotional experiences that we have,” says Charles. “We need to focus and work towards better regulating our daily lives so we can have better mental health over time.”

The Wear and Tear of Daily Stressors