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Diana Uriostegui

Optimists are better at Regulating Stress than Pessimists

New research from Concordia University’s Department of Psychology is improving our understanding of how optimists and pessimists each handle stress by comparing them not to each other but to themselves. Results show that indeed the “stress hormone” cortisol tends to be more stable in those with more positive personalities. Carsten Wrosch, psychology professor and member of the Centre for Research on Human Development (left), and Ph.D. candidate Joelle Jobin coauthored the study on stress and optimism.

The study tracked 135 older adults (aged 60+) over six years. They collected saliva samples five times a day to monitor cortisol levels. This age group was selected because older adults often face a number of age-related stressors and their cortisol levels have been shown to increase.

People in the study were asked to report on the level of stress they perceived in their day-to-day lives, and self-identify along a continuum as optimists or pessimists. Each person’s stress levels were then measured against their own average. Measuring the stress levels against participants’ own average provided a real-world picture of how individuals handle stress because individuals can become accustomed to the typical amount of stress in their lives.

Joelle Jobin, a PhD candidate in clinical psychology who co-authored the study with her supervisor Carsten Wrosch and Michael Scheier from Carnegie Mellon University, says “for some people, going to the grocery store on a Saturday morning can be very stressful, so that’s why we asked people how often they felt stressed or overwhelmed during the day and compared people to their own averages, then analyzed their responses by looking at the stress levels over many days.”

She also said that pessimists tended to have a higher stress baseline than optimists, but also had trouble regulating their system when they go through particularly stressful situations. She reported that on days where the participants experienced higher than average stress, was when they saw that the pessimists’ stress response is greatly elevated, and they have trouble bringing their cortisol levels back down. Optimists, on the other hand, were protected in these circumstances.

One surprising finding was that optimists who generally had more stressful lives secreted higher cortisol levels than expected shortly after they awoke (cortisol peaks just after waking and declines through the day). Jobin says there are several possible explanations, but also notes that the finding points to the difficulty of classifying these complex hormones as good or bad. She say that the problem with cortisol is that we call it “the stress hormone”, but it’s also our ‘get up and do things’ hormone, so we may secrete more if engaged and focused on what’s happening.