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It’s Not Just Whether You’re Stressed – It’s Whether You Think You’re Stressed

Carrie Steckl earned her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology with a Minor in Gerontology from Indiana University – Bloomington in 2001. She has spent over ...Read More

News flash! Stress is harming your health.

“No kidding,” you think to yourself. But it’s not just the stress itself that may be causing physiological harm – it’s also the way you think about the stress in your life that could be doing damage.

This finding was revealed in a recent study published in the online version of The European Heart Journal. The ambitious study administered questionnaires to 7,268 men and women who were an average age of 50 at the beginning of the research. Not only did they survey a lot of people – they also followed them for 18 years, lending credence to the findings.

In the questionnaires, participants were asked to rate the effect of stress on their health among choices of “none,” “a little,” “a lot,” or “extremely.” This tapped into the participants’ perceived level of stress; that is, how stressed they thought they were, regardless of what was actually happening in their lives.

The researchers also put the participants through psychological and physical testing that determined their actual levels of stress according to standardized measures. They also tracked which participants experienced a heart attack or death from coronary disease over the course of the study.

Statistical analyses were used to control for factors that could affect the results such as actual stress level. Then, the relationship between perceived level of stress and heart attacks or deaths was examined. They found that the participants who said that stress affected their health “a lot” or “extremely” were 49% more likely to have a heart attack or die from coronary disease.

Forty-nine percent is nothing to sneeze at – it’s a significant finding that suggests that how we think about our stress can greatly affect our risk for serious heart problems. The flip side of this equation is that we can adjust our thinking about stress, even if we are plagued by high levels of the stuff, and perhaps lower our risk for heart disease.

How do we change the way we think about stress? Check out my series on Ways We Think That Can Make or Break Us (Part 1 and Part 2). The series outlines several types of faulty thinking that can get us into trouble, whether we’re thinking about stress in general or the things that cause it for us. By identifying unhealthy thinking and replacing it with more adaptive thoughts, we just might help our hearts, too.


Bakalar, N. (2013). Feeling stressed? It’s probably harming your health. The New York Times:

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