IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Bitter? Don't be. It's bad for your health

There are two kinds of people in the world: The ones who blame themselves for setbacks and the ones who blame anyone but themselves.

So says psychologist Carsten Wrosch, anyway. He says the former live with regret and sadness, the latter with bitterness and anger. And, speculates Wrosch, over the long run, either regret or bitterness could make you sick -- unless you make lemonade out of the lemons life hands you or, in some cases, cut your losses and toss those lemons in the trash.

Wrosch, a professor at Montreal’s Concordia University, and coauthor Jesse Renaud contributed a chapter about their theories of bitterness across the lifespan to a recently published book, "Embitterment: Societal, psychological, and clinical perspectives."

Wrosch has already shown that people who have lived with regret for years have higher levels of the hormone cortisol, released in response to stress, which can increase their vulnerability to disease. He’s just starting to look at whether the same holds true for bitterness.

As if we didn’t already know, Wrosch notes that “blaming other people actually has short-term positive emotional effects. It protects a person’s self-esteem: It’s not me who did something wrong.” But bitterness over the long-term is probably another story, he says.

In fact, some German psychiatrists think bitterness itself is a disease and should be categorized as post-traumatic embitterment disorder, or PTED. Michael Linden, head of the psychiatric clinic at the Free University of Berlin, first described the concept in a 2003 paper.

Although PTED patients can’t stop thinking about the failed relationship, the job they didn’t get—whatever negative life event triggered the disorder—they look pretty normal, Linden wrote, noting that “patients can even smile when engaged in thoughts of revenge.”

Wrosch isn’t exactly buying into the notion of such a thing as PTED. But, based on his research, he does have some suggestions on how to minimize bitterness and regret in your life.

First, he says, you need to “disengage” from pie-in-the-sky goals, like thinking you’re going to steal your happily remarried ex away from his or her new spouse. “Quitting can be good if you have unattainable goals,” Worsch says. Research shows you’ll lower your cortisol levels and feel sick less.

Second, you have to reengage in other meaningful goals to help maintain a sense of purpose in your life. For example, pursue that hobby and get your mind off your ex. Not surprisingly, studies show that folks who do that tend to have greater feelings of well-being.

Wrosch recently received a grant to conduct a long-term study of bitterness and regret in 300 couples. One question he plans to investigate: When it comes to bitterness and regret, do opposites attract? What would you say to that?