Thoughts of love buffer blood pressure against stress

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When facing a stressful situation, thinking about your romantic partner may help keep your blood pressure under control just as effectively as actually having them in the room with you.

For a new study, researchers asked 102 participants to complete a stressful task—submerging one foot into 3 inches of cold water ranging from 38 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Researchers measured participants’ blood pressure, heart rate, and heart rate variability before, during, and after the task.

Researchers randomly assigned the participants, all of whom were in committed romantic relationships, to one of three conditions when completing the task. They either had their significant other sitting quietly in the room with them during the task; they had to think about their romantic partner as a source of support during the task; or they had to think about their day during the task.

Those who had their partner physically present in the room or who thought about their partner had a lower blood pressure response to the stress of the cold water than the participants in the control group, who researchers told to think about their day. Heart rate and heart rate variability did not vary between the three groups.

“…one way being in a romantic relationship might support people’s health is through allowing people to better cope with stress…”

The effect on blood pressure reactivity was just as powerful whether the partner was physically present or participants merely thought of them.

Although previous studies have suggested that having a partner present or visualizing a partner can help manage the body’s physiological response to stress, the new study suggests that the two things are equally effective—at least when it comes to blood pressure reactivity.

The findings may help explain, in part, why high-quality romantic relationships are consistently associated with positive health outcomes in the scientific literature, says coauthor Kyle Bourassa, a psychology doctoral student at the University of Arizona.

“This suggests that one way being in a romantic relationship might support people’s health is through allowing people to better cope with stress and lower levels of cardiovascular reactivity to stress across the day,” Bourassa says. “And it appears that thinking of your partner as a source of support can be just as powerful as actually having them present.”

The study participants in Bourassa’s research were college undergraduates in committed relationships. Future studies should look at members of the general community in varying age ranges, Bourassa says.

If researchers can replicate the findings, they could have implications for those facing everyday stressful situations, says Bourassa.

“Life is full of stress, and one critical way we can manage this stress is through our relationships—either with our partner directly or by calling on a mental image of that person,” Bourassa says. “There are many situations, including at work, with school exams, or even during medical procedures, where we would benefit from limiting our degree of blood pressure reactivity, and these findings suggest that a relational approach to doing so can be quite powerful.”

The research appears in the journal Psychophysiology.

A grant from the University of Arizona’s Graduate and Professional Student Council funded the study.

Source: University of Arizona