How We Perceive a Stressful Event (Like a Car Accident or Concussion) Can Impact Its Effect on Our Health

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A stressful life event that results in injury, like a car accident or a concussion, certainly has a negative impact on our wellbeing when it occurs. But research published in the journal Anxiety Stress Coping indicates that how we think about that event can continue to affect our health years later.

In this journal article, “Perceptions of Stressful Life Events as Turning Points Are Associated With Self-Rated Health and Psychological Distress,” researchers describe their attempt to test the hypothesis that how a person perceives a stressful life event can change their health, even after any acute injuries resulting from the event have healed.

In the study, researchers talked to 1,038 different people about a stressful life event they had recently experienced. Ten years later, they returned to ask the participants how they viewed that event in hindsight, and what, if any, lessons they felt they had learned from it. They also asked about the participants’ long-term health outcomes.

The researchers discovered that whether or not the participants felt they had “learned a lesson” had very little effect on their actual or perceived state of health. However, they also found that how the participants perceived the stressful event had a significant relationship to their health. Specifically, the more a participant viewed the event as negative, the more likely it was that he or she was struggling with poorer health than participants who viewed the event as neutral or positive.

The researchers concluded, then, that there is some truth to the idea that how we perceive an event like a car accident or a concussion has an effect on our health – and that the effects on our health can persist long after the event occurs. While it doesn’t appear necessary to find a “life lesson” in the event, it does appear that finding a way to contextualize the event as neutral, or finding positive things that resulted from it, can help boost health outcomes. Continuing to view it as negative may have the opposite effect, contributing to lingering stress and other health problems.