Positive Relationship Experiences Linked to Better Physiological Functioning

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Social relationships are known to affect physical health, but the nature of this link is not fully understood. New research in Social Psychological and Personality Science proposes that a person’s emotional attachment to their close relationships may influence bodily functions.

The study investigated how positive and negative relationship experiences impact the body and how daily fluctuations in relationship experiences may influence changes in health outcomes.

“Both positive and negative experiences in our relationships contribute to our daily stress, coping, and physiology, like blood pressure and heart rate reactivity,” the study’s lead author Brian Don of the University of Auckland, said in a statement.

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Over three weeks, the 4,005 participants completed daily assessments of their blood pressure, heart rate, stress, and coping via their smartphones or smartwatches. Additionally, they provided detailed reflections on the positive and negative attributes of their closest relationships every three days.

People with more positive experiences and fewer negative experiences in their close relationships reported lower stress, better coping, and lower systolic blood pressure reactivity, leading to better physiological functioning and coping abilities, according to researchers. Daily fluctuations in negative relationship experiences, like conflict, strongly predict outcomes such as stress and systolic blood pressure.

Don noted that the broader implication of this study is important. Integrative practitioners might consider how outside stressors – such as the COVID-19 pandemic – can affect people’s relationships and, therefore, their physical health. 

While the study found associations between daily positive and negative relationship experiences and physiological functioning, the researchers cautioned against concluding that one causes the other. 

Don suggested that future research should examine other physiological states beyond blood pressure and heart rate reactivity, such as neuroendocrine or sympathetic nervous system responses, to understand better how relationships affect health.