Susan Charles, UC Irvine professor of psychology and social behavior, and her colleagues conducted the study in order to answer a long-standing question: Do everyday irritations add up to make the straw that breaks the camel's back, or do they make us stronger and "inoculate" us against later tribulations?
Using data from two national, longitudinal surveys, the researchers found that participants' negative emotional responses to daily stressors - such as arguments with a spouse or partner, conflicts at work, standing in long lines or sitting in traffic - predicted psychological distress and self-reported anxiety/mood disorders 10 years later.
"How we manage daily emotions matters to our overall mental health," Charles said. "We're so focused on long-term goals that we don't see the importance of regulating our emotions. Changing how you respond to stress and how you think about stressful situations is as important as maintaining a healthy diet and exercise routine."
The results were based on data from 711 men and women between 25 and 74 who had participated in the Midlife Development in the United States project and the National Study of Daily Experiences.
According to Charles and her colleagues, the findings show that mental health outcomes aren't affected by just major life events; they also bear the impact of seemingly minor emotional experiences. The study suggests that the chronic nature of negative emotions in response to daily stressors can take a toll on long-term psychological well-being.
"It's important not to let everyday problems ruin your moments," Charles said. "After all, moments add up to days, and days add up to years. Unfortunately, people don't see mental health problems as such until they become so severe that they require professional attention."
The study has been published online in the journal Psychological Science.