Resolving stressful events, arguments improves wellbeing long-term

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When people feel they have resolved an argument, the emotional response associated with that disagreement is significantly reduced and, in some situations, almost entirely erased. That reduction in stress may have a major impact on overall health, according to a new study by Oregon State University published in the Journals of Gerontology Series B.

Researchers have long been aware of how chronic stress can affect health, from mental health problems such as depression and anxiety to physical problems including heart disease, a weakened immune system, reproductive difficulties, and gastrointestinal issues. However, it's not just major chronic stressors like poverty or violence that can inflict damage, the researchers said.

For the study, the researchers used data from the National Study of Daily Experiences, an in-depth survey of more than 2,000 people who were interviewed about their feelings and experiences for eight days in a row. The researchers looked at reports of both arguments and avoided arguments, defined as instances where the person could have argued about something but chose to let it slide so as not to have a disagreement. They then measured how the incident affected the person's reported change in negative and positive emotions, both for the day of the encounter and the day after it occurred.

The measure of how an experience affects someone emotionally, an increase in negative emotions or a decrease in positive emotions, on the day it occurs is known as "reactivity," while "residue" is the prolonged emotional toll the day after the experience occurs. Negative and positive affect refer to the degree of negative and positive emotions a person feels on a given day.

Results showed that on the day of an argument or avoided argument, people who felt their encounter was resolved reported roughly half the reactivity of those whose encounters were not resolved. On the day following an argument or avoided argument, people who felt the matter was resolved showed no prolonged elevation of their negative affect the next day.

The study also looked at age-related differences in response to arguments and avoided arguments and found that adults ages 68 and older were more than 40 percent more likely than people 45 and younger to report their conflicts as resolved. However, the impact of resolution status on people's negative and positive affect remained the same regardless of age.

The researchers said older adults may be more motivated to minimize negative and maximize positive emotions as they have fewer years remaining, which is consistent with existing theories of aging and emotion. They may also have more experience navigating arguments and thus be more effective at defusing or avoiding conflict.

While people cannot always control what stressors come into their lives, and lack of control is itself a stressor in many cases, they can work on their own emotional response to those stressors, the researchers said.

In future research projects, the researchers said they hope to further unpack the nature of people's disagreements to measure which contexts and relationships provoke the most stressful arguments.

"Everyone experiences stress in their daily lives. You aren't going to stop stressful things from happening. But the extent to which you can tie them off, bring them to an end and resolve them is definitely going to pay dividends in terms of your well-being," said Robert Stawski, PhD, senior author of the study and an associate professor in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences. "Resolving your arguments is quite important for maintaining wellbeing in daily life."