No one is a stranger to anxiety. Decades of research have shown that major life events, such as the death of a spouse or starting a new job, can take a lot of our energy and attention. But recently, scientists have made advances in understanding how small, everyday stressors affect our mood and experience.
David Almeida, a developmental psychologist and professor of human development and family studies at Pennsylvania State University, has tracked daily stressors in the lives of a group of more than 3,000 adults since 1995. Almeida spoke with Mind Matters about some of the benefits of aging she’s discovered — and how global and national events can hit us.
You have been following people’s daily experiences for two decades. How did this work change your perspective as a psychologist?
My work seeks to characterize a day in the life of a person. I am looking for how people use their time, how they experience stressors and positive events, what their moods and physical symptoms are. I chart how these change daily; The flow and ups and downs of daily experiences. So even though I am a psychologist, my unit of analysis is a day, not a person.
The more I get into this, the more I see that people change from day to day, just as you are different from other people. Our identity is not just who we are based on the average of our experiences—our identity can be a range of our behavior, the extent to which we rise and fall with our experiences.
How do you track daily stressors?
At the end of each day we ask people to answer a series of structured questions. We used to use phone calls but now we have web based methods. We ask them how they spent their time, how they are feeling, what their physical symptoms are, who they interacted with, and many questions about the type of stressors they experienced that day.
For some studies, we also collect a saliva sample, which enables us to determine the amount of stress hormones in the body.
We have worked with a large group of people this way. I’d like to thank the wonderful participants of the National Study of Daily Experiments—part of a larger survey called Usual Life in the United States—for sharing their lives with me over the past 20 years. Following them has been a privilege.
You recently published findings from an analysis of 2,845 adults—ages 22 to 77—over the past 20 years. In this work, you found that people seem to be less stressed as they get older. Can you explain this further?
Yes, finally some good news about daily anxiety! It seems to be getting a little better. We found that younger people report more exposure to anxiety-provoking events—things that people find challenging, distressing, or disruptive—than older people.
People in their 20s report stressors on at least 40 to 45 percent of days, but by the time they reach their 70s, that number drops to 20 to 25 percent of days.
Additionally, we examined how much people Distress experience – or the way they react to stress. We see the same pattern here, with younger people experiencing more distress than older people on stressful days. But around age 55, this age advantage—that your response to anxiety gets better with age—starts to wane and stop.
Why is there an age advantage in dealing with anxiety?
I think three reasons can be involved and work together. The first is about the social role of people. When you’re young, these roles can include parenting a young child, starting a career, or entering a new relationship. New roles are anxiety-inducing; Also role conflict when you have multiple roles at the same time.
A second reason could be that as we get older, we realize how much life we have left and decide to make the most of it – so we become very motivated to enjoy it.
The third reason, the one I’m most interested in, is that we learn to cope with previous stressors only thanks to experience, opportunities, and experiences, and as we get older we become more specialized in dealing with daily stressors.
Does this explain why research says older people are happier than younger people?
When people get older, you can list all the things you shouldn’t see as reasons; Things like declining physical health, losing friends, being sick, and cognitive decline. These are not things we would expect to be associated with increased happiness. But we see time and time again that as people get older, their life satisfaction Increase has been found
However, there is a point where this pattern stops. I think at older ages – the 80s and 90s – we see a time when things get really difficult and there’s a decline in life satisfaction.
How do things like economic and political uncertainty in the background of life affect our daily anxiety?
We were able to study the effects of the 2008 recession and its aftermath. Looking at our data, it is quite clear that compared to 1995, adults in 2010 had more stressful daily lives and were more distressed by those experiences.
Our hypothesis is that this reflects historical changes, such as the recession and the use of technology, that have transformed social interactions. From this we can guess how economic recession and other changes can affect us. In Anide’s work, we hope to see what the pandemic has done – for example, in this period it is possible that we will not see a large age advantage.
But what really surprised us in our analysis of the 2008 recession was that this difference in anxiety seemed to accumulate in middle-aged people. I thought young people just starting their careers and retired adults would be worse off. But no, it was adults in their mid-40s to mid-60s who reported higher levels of psychological distress. I think it has something to do with the social role of a middle-aged person. They worry about their children as well as their parents.
As a practical recommendation, should we strive to eliminate all anxiety-provoking factors from our daily lives?
There’s something about having some daily stress that can actually be good. People who report that they have no anxiety in their lives are, in our opinion, lucky and happy people. But they also report fewer positive things in their lives. They have fewer people in their lives and perform worse on cognitive tests.
It’s your reactivity to anxiety—how you react to it—that really matters to your health and well-being. For example, it’s not the number of stressors, but your emotional reactions to them that can cause cardiovascular disease, increased inflammation, and early death.
What should we do to manage our reactions?
There are things people can do on their own — like eating well and getting enough sleep at night. But we must remember that not everyone can do these things. This is not just a personal decision.
We found that minority groups—racial, ethnic, and sexual—had higher anxiety reactivity. They don’t always have enough resources to deal with daily stressors on their own.
For example, when your body experiences anxiety, it tends to convert energy into movement. So if you get up and walk away, you have chosen the best way to end this emotional reaction. But many people can’t get up and walk in the middle of their work day.
We need to start talking about how to provide these resources so that people are empowered to take care of themselves.