How you react to stress is worse for your health than how many times you were stressed, researchers from Columbia University and Penn State have found.

Major stressful events and depression have been shown to affect health negatively but not as much attention has been given to the effects of daily hassles and frustrations. The researchers carried out a study to find out if heart rate variability, the measure of interval variation in consecutive heartbeats, and daily stress are linked.

According to one of the authors, Nancy L. Sin from Penn State, high heart rate variability is ideal because it shows the heart's ability to respond to changes and challenges. Those who have lower heart rate variability are the ones at higher risk of heart disease and premature death.

For the study, the researchers assessed data from more than 900 participants, conducting daily consecutive interviews via telephone over the course of eight days. Aged 35 to 85, the participants also underwent electrocardiograms.

During the phone interviews, the participants were told to rate events in their day based on how stressful they were, using "very," "somewhat," "not very" and "not at all." The researchers also inquired about negative emotions felt during that day, like feeling nervous, sad and angry.

Based on results, at least one stressful event was reported by the participants across 42 percent of the days they were interviewed. These events were generated as "somewhat" stressful.

However, the researchers found that those who reported numerous stressful events were not necessarily the same participants who recorded low heart rate variability. Rather, those who experienced a larger elevation in negative feelings or deemed an event as every stressful were the ones with lower heart rate variability and, thus, the ones at higher risk of developing heart disease.

"Higher heart rate variability is better for health as it reflects the capacity to respond to challenges," said Sin, postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Healthy Aging.

As the results of their work show that minor stresses can accumulate to affect health, the researchers are hoping their study can be used to help in developing interventions that will improve daily well-being and promoting better health.

The study was supported by the National Institute on Aging and the findings were published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine.

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