Learning new ways to manage stress can naturally lead to a healthier lifestyle and greater wellbeing, new research suggests.
People who developed and practised strategies for coping with worry and rumination were found to sleep better, drink less alcohol and eat healthier food, analysis of several studies from around the world has shown.
Worry is often concerned with feared future events, while rumination is continuously thinking about stressors encountered in the past. Both are common coping responses to stress.
The review highlights the importance of finding time to switch off and manage worry.
The research team were aiming to establish whether reducing these responses could improve physical health and health behaviours - actions people take that affect their health in both positive and negative ways, like exercising and healthy eating, or smoking and excessive alcohol intake.
Lead author Dane McCarrick, a postgraduate researcher in Leeds’ School of Psychology, said: “This new research provides the first synthesis of experimental evidence testing the most effective methods at reducing worry and rumination within the context of health.
“The review provides fresh evidence for the link between stress and adverse health outcomes and highlights the importance of finding time to switch off and manage worry.”
Stress is known to impact physical health, and can increase blood pressure, heart rate and cardiovascular activity, lower the immune system, affect hormone levels and produce physical symptoms, including pain and nausea.
The research team used data from 5,000 participants across 36 different studies to examine how psychological interventions for worry and rumination impacted mental and physical health and health behaviours over a period of time.
The results were compared with control groups who received no intervention.
- Psychological detachment - switching off from situations that trigger stress
- Action plans, such as postponing worry until an allocated time
- Stress management
- Mindfulness and relaxation
- Talking therapies: cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and acceptance and commitment therapy
- Pain management
The results showed that all intervention types had a significant, positive effect on health behaviours, with the exception of pain management strategies.
Delivery methods and settings, such as professionally-led or group therapy were also assessed.
The team found that levels of worry and rumination were lower in the intervention group compared with the control group, with larger effects produced when interventions were administered by a healthcare professional. Action planning, psychological detachment and CBT produced significant effects on worry, while mindfulness, psychological detachment, CBT and pain management produced significant results for rumination.
The researchers also noted a correlation between lower levels of worry and rumination, and improved health behaviours.
And they found no difference in effect among any sub-groups, suggesting that these techniques are likely to work for most people.
The research, jointly conducted by Mr McCarrick, Dr Andrew Prestwich, Dr Arianna Prudenzi and Professor Daryl O’Connor, is published in Health effects of psychological interventions for worry and rumination: A meta-analysis. The paper appears in the Health Psychology journal.
Mr McCarrick said: “Our data suggest that there are ways in which we can look after our mental health – by reducing worry and rumination – that can also have lasting consequences for a range of health behaviours, such as sleep hygiene and alcohol dependency.
“This is particularly pertinent given other studies have recently shown that both worry and rumination can be exacerbated by the circumstances surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, so the evidence-based psychological techniques highlighted by this research are especially timely.”
For media enquiries contact University of Leeds press officer Lauren Ballinger.