Perseverance May Protect Against Anxiety And Depression, New Study Suggests

What’s going on in a person’s life clearly impacts their mental health—but it’s also true that how you respond to these events also plays a big role in mental health. In this vein, a new study from Pennsylvania State University finds that the more one perseveres and sticks to life goals, and the more one is able to find the good in bad situations, the lower their risk of mental health disorders in the decades that follow.

The study was published this week in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology.

To look at how perseverance affected mental health, and vice versa, the team looked at data from just under 3,300 participants at three time points, 1995 to 1996, 2004 to 2005 and 2012 to 2013. They tracked the participants’ mental health over the years, including whether they had depression, anxiety, and panic disorder over the course of the study.

The researchers were interested in three variables in particular: goal persistence, self-mastery, and positive reappraisal. To measure goal persistence, participants rated their agreement with statements like, “When faced with a bad situation, I do what I can do to change it for the better” and “I rarely give up on something I am doing, even when things get tough” For self-mastery, or feeling of being in control of one’s life, statements included “When I really want to do something, I usually find a way to succeed at it” and “Whether or not I am able to get what I want is in my own hands.” And positive reappraisal was about the degree to which people could pull themselves up by the bootstraps when things go wrong: “I find I usually learn something meaningful from a difficult situation” and “Even when everything seems to be going wrong, I can usually find a bright side to the situation.”

The team found that goal persistence was linked to a greater decline in mental health disorders including depression, anxiety, and panic disorder over the next 18 years. The link was not there for self-mastery or positive reappraisal.

Additionally, people who started out with fewer mental health problems showed more increased perseverance toward life goals and more positive reappraisal later on. There weren’t any connections found for self-mastery, which is odd, since previous research has found that greater self-mastery is linked to better mental health. But the authors suggest that the lack of connection they found may be because self-mastery didn’t change over the years, which could suggest it’s a pretty stable part of one’s personality.

But the other links are encouraging, since they suggest that how we perceive situations and respond to them can affect our risk of mental health issues.

“Applying positive reappraisal when undergoing adversities nurtures optimism and the feeling that life is meaningful, comprehensible, and manageable, thus contributing to fewer disorder counts over time,” the authors write in their paper. “Positive reappraisal may thus develop individuals’ inner resources by helping them be more accepting toward uncontrollable life stressors. Moreover, focusing on the bright side can directly decrease worry, depression, and anxiety.”

And even better is the fact that these characteristics are to some degree learnable—that is, even if we don’t start out responding so well to negative events, we can learn how to do this and, with practice, make it more reflexive over time.

“Our findings suggest that people can improve their mental health by raising or maintaining high levels of tenacity, resilience and optimism,” said study author Nur Hani Zainal in a statement. “Aspiring toward personal and career goals can make people feel like their lives have meaning. On the other hand, disengaging from striving toward those aims or having a cynical attitude can have high mental health costs.”


By Alice G. Walton