Coping With Stress Helps Cholesterol

Good Coping Skills May Raise 'Good' Cholesterol Levels

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on August 20, 2007
From the WebMD Archives

Aug. 20, 2007 -- The better you cope with stress, the better your "good" cholesterol level is likely to be, according to a new study.

"We know that stress and hostility affect cholesterol," says researcher Carolyn M. Aldwin, PhD, professor and chairwoman of the department of human development and family sciences at Oregon State University in Corvallis. There has been less research, however, on how coping skills can counteract the effects of stress, she says.

Good coping skills were associated with better levels of the so-called "good" cholesterol or high-density lipoprotein (HDL) in her study.

The study was released at the 115th annual convention of the American Psychological Association in San Francisco.

Stress and Cholesterol

Aldwin and her colleagues evaluated data from 716 men who participated in the Normative Aging Study. The researchers looked at the interplay of hostility, stress, coping, and the participants' cholesterol levels.

The average age of the participants was 65; most were white. They were evenly split between white-collar and blue-collar occupations.

The researchers assessed the men's hostility and asked them to describe their most stressful problem in the past week.

The men also completed a questionnaire that asked them to rate how often they used 26 different coping strategies when dealing with a stressful problem in the past month. Some were unhealthy strategies, such as socially isolating themselves when under stress or blaming themselves for the stress. Other strategies were healthy, such as making a plan of action to deal with the problem causing the stress.

The more hostile the men were, the more likely they were to look at problems as stressful. They were also more apt to use unhealthy coping skills to deal with that stress.

After fasting overnight, the men's blood was tested for HDL cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein (LDL) or "bad" cholesterol, and triglycerides.

Coping Skills Aid HDL Cholesterol

The results were a surprise, Aldwin tells WebMD. "What we were really expecting is that coping would mitigate the effects of stress on LDL," she says. But the researchers found that the good coping skills only helped the protective effect of the "good" HDL cholesterol.

"People who coped well had higher levels of HDL than people who didn't cope well," she says.

She cannot cite an exact improvement in HDL or an average HDL level among those who coped well. "This is simply a correlational study," she says, finding an association between good coping skills and better HDL levels.

The amount of stress you deal with isn't as important, they also found, as how you deal with it. "Stress doesn't matter nearly as much as how you cope with it," she says.

The more hostile the men were, the worse the LDL and triglyceride levels, the researchers also found.

While the study included only men, Aldwin says she would think the same findings would apply to women.

Perspective: Stress and Cholesterol

It's been known for years, Aldwin says, that stress affects LDL and makes it rise.

"Stress raises total cholesterol levels in general and it raises LDL levels," she says.

The results "are consistent" with research by Peter Vitaliano, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, psychology, and health services at the University of Washington in Seattle. The new study, Vitaliano says, "adds to the body of research on how hostility relates to health, in particular heart disease."

Other research, he says, also found that "avoidance" coping, such as blaming oneself, is unhealthy and related to hostility and anger. "Both of those are related to blood pressure elevation and lower HDL," he says.

"Hostility is also associated with higher blood glucose levels in healthy people and in diabetics," he says, "and that raises the risk of heart disease."

Hostile people, he says, "often use emotion-focused coping," he says. "They use emotions like anger and avoidance instead of problem solving."

Ideally, total cholesterol levels should be below 200 mg/dL, according to the American Heart Association. HDL levels 60 mg/dL and above are heart-protective, while levels below 40 in men and below 50 in women are considered low and a risk factor for heart disease. LDL below 100 mg/dL is optimal, and below 130 is "near or above optimal." Triglycerides should be below 150 mg/dL.

Show Sources

SOURCES: Carolyn Aldwin, PhD, professor and chairwoman, department of human development and family sciences, Oregon State University, Corvallis. Peter Vitaliano, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, psychology, and health services, University of Washington, Seattle. 115th annual convention, American Psychological Association, San Francisco, Aug. 17-20, 2007. American Heart Association web site.

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