Feelings of stress happen to everyone at one time or another, and there are many different ways of coping.
Some people may try going for a walk or spending time with their partner, but this is not always possible. Now new research from the University of Arizona has found that when under stress, just thinking about a romantic partner can help keep blood pressure levels under control just as well as if the person was there beside you.
“In terms of the impact of close relationships on cardiovascular health, the evidence is pretty clear that having more relationships, particularly more positive relationships, benefits physical health,” Kyle Bourassa, lead author of the study, told Theravive.
“In the case of thinking about a partner, the mental image people carry around with them of their partner might act as a psychological resource during stress. When our partner is present, it may reduce the stress response to threat. Our study suggests that both might play a role, though more study is clearly needed before we can be sure of this,” he said.
In undertaking his study, Bourassa and colleagues asked 102 study participants to complete a stressful task; putting their foot into cold water between 38 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit. The blood pressure and heart rate of participants was measured before they submerged their foot in the water, whilst their foot was submerged and after they had removed their foot from the water.
All of the study participants were in a committed romantic relationship and were each given different instructions during the study in relation to their partner. Some participants had their partner sitting silently in the room whilst they submerged their foot in the cold water, other participants were asked to think about their partner as they completed the task and the final group of participants were not instructed to think about their partners at all, but rather to think about their day as they completed the task.
The researchers found that the participants who had their partners in the room during the task had a lower blood pressure response when their foot was placed in the cold water, when compared with the participants who were asked to think about their day. The participants who were asked to think about their partners during the task also had a lower blood pressure.
Previous research suggests either having a partner present in a stressful situation or visualizing a partner during a stressful situation helps the body cope with stress. This latest research suggests the two methods are equally effective in keeping blood pressure under control during stress.
“If these results hold in daily life, it might help people when they face stressful situations. Life can be full of stress, and one way we manage stress is through relationships. These findings suggest that thinking about your partner might be helpful in managing stress in the same way as actually having your partner there. This might help support people control their blood pressure during stressful situations like taking a test, presenting at a meeting, or going to the dentist,” Bourassa told Theravive.
It has long been established that positive relationships have a significant impact on both physical and mental health, even years after a partner dies.
“In a prior study, my colleagues and I found that the quality of life of a person's spouse predicted their partner's wellbeing, even years after they died. This led us to wonder what cognitions, or mental thoughts, about a spouse might influence people even when their partner isn't physically present. This combined with previous evidence that close relationships improve health led us to create the study to explore how mentally drawing on the image of a partner might influence people's physical health, as well as how this compares to actually having a partner physically present. The importance of the question is related to the importance of our relationships,” Bourassa said.
Healthy and positive relationships have been found to lower rates of depression and anxiety, improve self-esteem, strengthen the immune system, assist in recovery from illness and even prolong life. A lack of positive relationships and loneliness can result in an increase of the stress hormone cortisol, increased blood pressure, disrupted sleep, and increased risk for depression and suicide.
It turns out strong, positive relationships really can be a matter of the heart.
“Numerous past studies have shown that having high quality social relationships are associated with better health and lower likelihood of death. In my area of study, one way we have understood this effect is in the impact strong relationships have on cardiovascular health. People in positive social relationships generally have better heart health than those in high conflict relationships or who are socially isolated.” Bourassa said.
“Positive, rewarding social connections have a variety of important impacts on health, and one way to benefit from your social connections is to draw on them as a resource during times of stress, even if they aren't physically present.”
Elizabeth Pratt is a medical journalist and producer. Her work has appeared on Healthline, The Huffington Post, Fox News, The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, The Sydney Morning Herald, News.com.au, Escape, The Cusp and Skyscanner. You can read more of her articles here. Or learn more about Elizabeth and contact her via her LinkedIn and Twitter profiles.