Good relationships strengthen health

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Positive experiences in close relationships are associated with better physical health. That’s according to a study from New Zealand that examined the effects on blood pressure, heart rate and stress management.

The research team, led by University of Auckland health psychologist Brian Don, examined the effects of positive and negative relationship experiences on the body. For their study, the researchers analyzed how these experiences, on the one hand, and the health scores of the study participants, on the other, changed from day to day.

For the study, which has now been published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, more than 4,000 people measured their blood pressure and heart rate daily with their smartphone or smartwatch over three weeks. Every three days, they also reported on their closest relationship with another person, describing positive and negative things they had experienced.

Less stress and better stress management
The research team found that, on average, people with more positive and fewer negative relationship experiences reported less stress and better stress management and had healthier blood pressure. “Both positive and negative relationship experiences affect blood pressure and heart rate. They can also contribute to everyday stress and how well someone manages it,” first author Don said in a news release. “It’s not just how we feel about our relationships overall that matters; the highs and lows are important, too.”

“The quality of our relationships can determine who lives and who dies,” the study authors write. Although the study cannot prove causal relationships, it does show how relationships and physical health are often intertwined, Don said. More studies are needed to establish causality as well, he said. In addition, he said, it would be useful to examine other bodily functions, such as nervous system responses to daily positive and negative relationship experiences.

In addition to relationship quality, exploring how external stressors can affect relationships and, thus, people’s physical health is important, the study says. The coronavirus pandemic is cited as an example: Since the pandemic, relationships “have faced unprecedented challenges, turbulence and change,” Don said.

He said the pandemic may have had health consequences because of the virus and indirectly because of its impact on people’s relationships. “Because the Covid 19 pandemic has caused significant stress, turbulence and fluctuation in people’s relationships, it has indirectly affected physical well-being,” the psychologist said.

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