Mind & Body

One Sweet Way to Beat Stress: Think of Your Significant Other

It's news to no one that being around the one you love feels good. When they're near, it might feel like you can conquer the world. According to new research, your bae can do you one better: Just thinking about them can ward off the effects of stress, and might even reduce your perception of pain.

Related Video: Here's Just How Important Relationships Are

We'll Weather the Storm

Scientists have known for a while that being in a loving relationship doesn't just feel good — it's good for you. Studies show that people with a higher quality and quantity of social relationships have a lower risk of death, whereas being divorced makes people more likely to die early. There are plenty of possible reasons for this — a partner will probably make sure you go to the doctor and give you the Heimlich maneuver if you choke on your food — but the simplest might be that having a partner in crime makes it easier to cope with everyday stress.

But how, exactly? That's what University of Arizona researchers Kyle Bourassa, John M. Ruiz, and David A. Sbarra wanted to know. It makes sense that having someone around makes things less stressful because you know they can help you if the need arises. But research also suggests that even thinking about a significant other can have benefits. The researchers sought to test whether even just thinking about a partner could have the same stress-buffering effects as having them in the room.

May Your Bae Be With You, Always

For a study published last month in the journal Psychophysiology, the team recruited more than 100 college students for a stress test and randomly assigned them to one of three groups. One of the groups would have their romantic partner in the room with them, and another was told to summon a mental picture of their partner and focus on it throughout the task. The control group, meanwhile, was asked to think about the events of the day.

Then came the stress: Participants had to dunk one foot in nearly freezing water for four whole minutes. They wore sensors to measure their blood pressure and heart rate, and before and after the toe-curling soak, they assessed how stressful they thought the test would be (or how stressful it was) and how well they thought they could cope with it (or how well they coped). Finally, while it was happening, they rated their pain on a 10-point scale.

One measure the researchers were especially interested in was cardiovascular reactivity, or how dramatically a person's heart rate and blood pressure respond to a stressor. High cardiovascular reactivity may be one risk factor for problems like heart disease and high blood pressure, so if a partner's presence (or mental image) helps reduce that reactivity, that would be one concrete way a loving relationship can make people healthier.

The results? Both participants who had their partner in the room and those who just had them in their heads had the same reductions in blood pressure response and cardiovascular reactivity during the cold water soak.

"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," Kyle Bourassa said in a statement. "And it appears that thinking of your partner as a source of support can be just as powerful as actually having them present."

This is good news for anyone in a relationship, regardless of whether it's long distance or you're attached at the hip. When you've got to persevere through a challenge and your beloved can't be there with you, just think about them — you may get the same benefit.

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Learn more about rock-solid relationships in "The All-or-Nothing Marriage: How the Best Marriages Work" by Eli Finkel. (You can also hear our interview with the author on the Curiosity Podcast.) We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer February 12, 2019

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