MSUToday
Published: Nov. 5, 2018

How parents can punish your health and wellness

Contact(s): Caroline Brooks Communications and Brand Strategy office: 517-432-0920 caroline.brooks@cabs.msu.edu, William Chopik Psychology office: (517) 355-6645 chopikwi@msu.edu

Happy or sad, accurate or not, your perceptions of your parents directly impact your physical health and wellness, according to research from Michigan State University. And regardless if they are true, you might be stuck with them for life.

“There are things that happen to us in life that can alter our perceptions of the past, but it’s not always the objective – or what actually happened – that really affects us,” said William Chopik, MSU psychology professor and lead author. “What really impacts adults is how we psychologically interpret things and create memories. In short: our memories of our childhood predicted health and depression even though they may not even be based in reality.”

Chopik’s findings, published in Health Psychology, revealed that mere perceptions put mental and physical health on the line for decades to come. Your memories, Chopik explained, might be the key to lifelong health and happiness.

“People with the not-so-happy memories are the people who we found were sicker. This includes self-rated health, chronic illness and depression. They described colder, more neglectful memories of their parents,” Chopik said. “On the other hand, healthy people had warmer, positive thoughts of their upbringings.”

Chopik’s research is the first to look at older adults’ parental perceptions, and it is the largest longitudinal study of its kind.

Using data collected in the 1990s from nationally representative panels, he tested two research samples: the first group included 7,000 middle-aged adults who were assessed for 18 years; the second included 15,000 adults in their late-60s, tested over six years.

While memories, attitudes and awareness change as we age, Chopik explained that the physical and mental effects one endures as a result of parental perceptions did not fade over time. That said, holding onto resentment for decades might catch up with you.

“Participants are trying to recall things that happened anywhere sometimes over 50 years ago. One might expect them to matter less and less over time,” he said. “Should we eventually get over how our parents treated us when we were younger? Maybe not – these memories still predicted health and depression 18 and six years after they were assessed when people were well into adulthood.”

While a breadth of research exists regarding memories and mental health, few before Chopik have tied memories to physical health. Additionally, his findings reinforce how memories effect everyday behavior.

“It’d be naïve to think that past relationships and how we remember them, especially those with our parents, don’t affect us today,” Chopik said. “How you remember things might actually be more important than what actually happened. Memories can truly be harmful because they can control how you behave, your health, and how you engage with and treat other people.”

There are ways to disrupt the negative effects bad memories have on physical and emotional health, Chopik explained, which is what he plans to explore in his next research endeavor.

William Chopik, assistant professor of psychology at Michigan State University.

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