In the new study, published in the Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences, researchers from North Carolina State University studied 45 adults between the ages of 60 and 96 and asked them about whether they had experienced a major stressful event—good or bad—in the last year, such as losing someone they loved or retiring.
The researchers then asked the men and women about their daily stressors over an eight day period. In order to gauge their general sense of well being and vitality, the team also asked the men and women to rate how old they felt, how old they would like to be and how old they thought they looked that day.
“There’s a lot of research on how old you feel,” says study author Jennifer Bellingtier, a Ph.D. candidate at North Carolina State University. “When you feel younger you have better mental health, tend to live longer, and have better well being.”
Interestingly, the researchers found that the men and women who had experienced a major stressful event in the past year were overall less upset by smaller daily stresses. The people who had not experienced a major stressor were more likely to feel much older on a stressful day whereas those who had dealt with a stressful event didn’t change much in their opinions of how old they felt. “We found they seemed to be less perturbed by everyday stress,” says Bellingtier.
All of the people in the study reported that they thought they looked around 10 years younger than they actually were. But on stressful days, those who had undergone major stress in the past thought they looked 20 years younger while people who hadn’t experienced a major change were more likely to say they looked their actual age.
While the study involved only a small number of people, Bellingtier says the findings may teach us important lessons about the value of surviving and coping with major life changes. The results suggest that as difficult and traumatic as they can be, stressful experiences can be sources of strength from which people can draw during future trying times.
“I think in some sense it means we can learn from our major life stressors and it can be beneficial to us,” she says. “It’s easy to get caught up in a lot of little daily things. It can be useful to know I’ve gotten through a lot more.”