Optimism and Stress: What the Research Says

“Every cloud has a silver lining,” “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade” or “count your blessings” are all familiar sayings that reflect the common sense understanding that being optimistic works in our favor; it helps protect us against the challenges of stressful and demanding life situations. Society has an innate grasp of the value of optimism knowing that “a glass half full” approach to life will bolster us and take us much further than a pessimistic or ”glass half empty” perspective. In a previous article of mine, I introduced the concept of optimism and explored how it can be used as an effective tool for managing stress. This article offers some insights into the links between stress and optimism in terms of what the research has to say. How does an optimistic demeanor actually influence our capacity to manage stress? What are the mechanisms through which the impact is felt?

Conversano’s (et al) 2010 review article of the relationship between optimism and mental and physical wellbeing provides a useful introductory overview to the relationship between stress and optimism. They quote a number of studies from Scheier and Carver (and colleagues) and other key researchers in the field of optimism. These studies note a significant positive relation between optimism and the capacity to choose problem-focused coping strategies, seek out social support and note the positive aspects of a given stressful situation. In other words, optimists are much more likely to have “protective attitudes” and make adaptive choices in the face of stressful events as opposed to feeling immobilized and/or stewing in the negative emotions that such events may potentially elicit. In addition, their ongoing positivity regarding daily events engenders a positive attitude that makes them more resilient to the impact of stress.

Studies have shown that optimists are more inclined to use coping strategies that completely negate, minimize or, at the very least, make stressful situations more manageable. They are less inclined to utilize strategies that are characterized by ignoring, avoiding or distancing themselves from the stressful event and the associated emotions. The research also indicates that the coping strategies we use tend to be fairly consistent over time, and that optimists are more likely to employ coping strategies that focus on solving the problem. Where this is not possible, optimists tend to engage with the emotional aspects of the stressful situation through, for instance, the use of humor, acceptance and positive reappraisal.

These adaptive coping strategies in turn have an impact on the quality of life of optimists. Schou et al’s 2005 study of women with breast cancer (quoted by Conversano et al, 2010), indicated that optimistic women were more inclined to use adaptive coping strategies such as humor and focusing on the positive, and also show positive results for quality of life. In contrast, pessimists were more likely to feel impotent and lose hope, and had significantly reduced quality of life.    

In a 2013 study conducted at Concordia University in Canada, researchers were able to link optimism to the biological stress response. The study tracked 152 older adults over six years, and found that subjects who self-identified as optimists tended to have more stable levels of cortisol (the “stress hormone”) in contrast to pessimists. The study noted that optimists had a lower stress baseline than pessimists and were more able to maintain stability in the face of stressful events. In contrast, pessimists had a higher baseline and stress levels peaked when encountering stressful events with pessimists struggling to return their biological stress response to baseline. These kinds of findings resonate with the research regarding optimism, stress, coping strategies and wellbeing. They provide some indication of the biological mechanisms linked to optimism and it’s associated coping strategies.

The impact of an optimistic disposition on coping strategies, our biology and our overall wellbeing when encountering a stressful situation is well supported by the research. The value of optimism in coping with stress goes beyond a common sense understanding and points to the importance of building an attitude of positivity in managing the challenges of life.

Author Bio:

Dr. Stacey Leibowitz-Levy is a highly experienced psychologist with a Master’s Degree in Clinical Psychology (Cum Laude) and a PhD in the area of stress and its relation to goals and emotion. She works with adults, teens and children within her areas of expertise. In addition to her private practice, Stacey contributes to several mental health blogs online, in addition to operating E-counseling.com, in the hopes of providing valuable information to people with mental health issues.


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