A man who keeps his cool in a stressful situation helps himself by increasing blood levels of HDL cholesterol, the good kind that keeps arteries clear, a study indicates.
And he might be adding years to his life.
That finding was a surprise, said Carolyn M. Aldwin, a member of a group presenting the study Saturday night at the American Psychological Association's annual convention, in San Francisco.
The belief has been that a man who invokes a hostile response to stress hurts his cardiovascular system by increasing the level of LDL cholesterol, the bad kind that forms artery-blocking plaques, said Aldwin, who is chairwoman of the department of human development and family sciences at Oregon State University.
"It was thought that the choice of a coping strategy had an immediate effect on LDL cholesterol," she said. But the better copers in the study had higher HDL levels.
The study found no effect on LDL cholesterol levels, she said.
The researchers worked with 716 men, almost all of them white, with an average age of 65, who took part in a long-term study on aging. Each was asked to describe his most stressful situation encountered in the previous week and was asked to choose among 26 strategies for coping with stress. Those strategies were scored on the basis of hostility the men displayed and other characteristics.
Blood samples were taken from the men after an overnight fast and measured for levels of HDL cholesterol, LDL cholesterol and the fats called triglycerides. Lower HDL levels were found in the men who used hostility as a coping strategy and also among those demonstrating self-blame and self isolation. Those strategies did raise levels of triglycerides a bit but had no effect on LDL readings.
The study was not designed to determine the mechanism that affected cholesterol readings, Aldwin said, "but we can speculate a bit."
The speculation is that men who keep cool and control their hostility avoid increasing levels of stress hormones such as cortisol, which affect blood fat levels, she said. "The theory is that if you stay calm, you actually decrease levels of stress hormones," Aldwin said.
Loriena A. Yancura, the University of Hawaii psychologist who led the study, said in a prepared statement that she was surprised at the lack of connection between coping strategies and LDL levels.
"One possible reason might be that measures of hostility, coping and lipids were taken at one point in time," Yancura said. "It is possible that changes in LDL might have been apparent in a lab setting or if we had looked at longitudinal relationships among hostility, coping and lipids."
The overall lesson of the study, Aldwin said, is that "the personality trait of emotional stability is protective against mortality. Those men who were good in self-regulation had higher HDL levels."
In practical terms, a first step toward self-control is to try not to get too upset about stressful things, Aldwin said. "You have to keep problems in perspective. Most problems are not major when compared to life-threatening trauma," she said.
The best way to handle a stressful problem "is to go ahead and fix the problem," Aldwin said. If a problem is not fixable, well, sometimes you just have to learn to let go, she added.