Thinking About Loved Ones is Just as Effective for Reducing Stress and Blood Pressure as Having Them in the Room

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From the University of Arizona By Alexis Blue, University Communications

Next time you’re faced with a stressful situation, this new study says that you can keep your blood pressure and stress levels under control simply by thinking about your romantic partner — and it is apparently just as effective as having your partner in the same room.

A new study from the University of Arizona asked 102 participants to complete a stressful task: submerging their foot into 3 inches of cold water ranging from 38 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Researchers measured participants’ blood pressure before and after the task.

The participants, all of whom were in committed romantic relationships that had lasted longer than a month, were randomly assigned to one of three conditions when completing the task. One group had their significant other sitting quietly in the same room with them during the task; another group was instructed to think about their romantic partner as a source of support during the task; and the final group was instructed to think about their day during the task as a control.

Surprisingly, the group that was only required to think about their partner had a much lower blood pressure response to the cold water than the control group. Not only that, the group that focused on the mental image of their partner showed the same rate of decreased blood pressure as the group participants who had their partners in the same room.

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, which was led by psychology doctoral student Kyle Bourassa and published in Psychophysiology, 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, Bourassa said.

“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.”

Future studies should look at members of the general community in varying age ranges, Bourassa said.

If replicated, the findings could have implications for those facing everyday stressful situations, said Bourassa, who co-authored the study with UA psychologists David Sbarra and John Ruiz.

“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.”


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