A Tough Childhood May Lower Your Threshold for Stress

Why some people can roll with the punches and others go to meltdown mode

You grit your teeth at the line in the supermarket, mutter under your breath at the printer’s paper jam, and go absolutely ballistic when stuck in morning traffic. Meanwhile, the person behind you at the market hums happily to herself; your coworker drops what she’s doing to help you un-jam the printer; and the person in the car beside you is be-bopping along to her tunes, with hardly a care in the world. Why is it that some people sail through life’s irritations and challenges with a smile on their face, when others, faced with the same situation, struggle to keep their sanity intact?

Researchers have long known that while some people can roll with the punches, others feel like every jab is aimed straight at their gut. Until now, no one knew why. According to a new study at the University of California Los Angeles, being exposed to adversity at a young age can make us more sensitive to stress as adults. Their study, published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research, found that people become depressed more easily following minor setbacks, because they’ve either gone through depression in the past or dealt with tough times growing up. Both of these circumstances, say researchers, make people less resilient to stress later on.

In particular, researchers found that losing a parent or being separated from a parent for at least a year before the age of 18 greatly increases a person’s sensitivity to stress throughout their lifetime.

According to lead researcher George Slavich, an assistant professor at the UCLA Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology, this phenomenon could help explain why some people get depressed after a breakup, for instance, while others do not.

Why might early bouts of depression or adversity make people less able to cope with stress? According to Slavich, these experiences could cause people to develop negative beliefs about themselves or the world -- that they are somehow defective, that life is unfair or that the world is against them. When something bad happens these ideas are solidified.

It’s how we think about the stressful situation that determines how well we will or won’t handle it, notes Slavich. “For example, when your best friend doesn't call back, do you think she is angry at you or do you think it just slipped her mind? Our thoughts affect how we react emotionally to situations, and these reactions in turn greatly influence our health,” explains Slavich.

His advice: The next time you encounter a stressful situation, take a step back and make sure you’re interpreting it in an honest, unbiased way. In other words, is your boss really out to make your life miserable, or is she just trying to meet the expectations of her own boss? In as much as you can, try to reframe the situation so it doesn't feel like a personal assault. Maybe you won’t be able to whistle your way through your workday, but it should help take some of the sting out of your workload. 

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