The New research shows that when facing a stressful situation, those who are in a romantic relationship may be able to prevent an increase in blood pressure just by having thought of their partner.
Carried out by psychologists at the University of Arizona, the new study recruited 102 participants who were all in committed romantic relationships and asked them to complete a stressful task, which involved placing one foot into cold water.
The participants were assigned to one of three conditions during the task, either completing the task with their partner sitting in the room with them; thinking about their partner as a source of support during the task despite him or her not being there; or thinking about their day.
The researchers also measured participants’ blood pressure, heart rate and heart rate variability before, during and after.
The findings showed that participants 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 group who were instructed to think about their day.
Moreover, the effect on the blood pressure reaction was just as strong whether the partner was physically present or whether participants were just thinking of them.
However, there was no difference in heart rate and heart rate variability between the three groups.
Lead author Kyle Bourassa commented on the findings, saying they may help explain why previous research has linked committed romantic relationships to improved health.
“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 said. “And it appears that thinking of your partner as a source of support can be just as powerful as actually having them present.”
Although further research is needed to replicate the findings, Bourassa said the results could have implications for those facing everyday stressful situations.
“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 said.
“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.”