Stressed? Having a partner present—even in your mind—keeps blood pressure down

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Stressed? Having a partner present—even in your mind—keeps blood pressure down

When faced with a stressful situation, thinking about your romantic partner may help keep your blood pressure under control just as effectively as actually having your significant other in the room with you, according to a new study by an international team of psychologists.

What the researchers say: For the study, published in the journal Psychophysiology, 102 participants were asked to complete a stressful task—submerging one foot into 3 inches of water of 38  degrees Fahrenheit (3.33 degrees Celsius). Researchers measured participants’ blood pressure, heart rate and heart rate variability before, during and after the task.     

The participants, all of whom were in committed romantic relationships, were randomly assigned to one of three conditions when completing the task. They either had their significant other sitting quietly in the room with them, they were instructed to think about their romantic partner as a source of support, or they were instructed to think about their day during the task.
Those 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 control group, who just thought about their day. Heart rate variability did not vary between the three groups.
The effect on blood pressure reactivity was just as powerful whether the partner was physically present or merely conjured mentally.
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 suggests that the two things are equally effective—at least when it comes to blood pressure.
So, what? The findings of this study are neither new or revolutionary, but rather confirm many other studies. In neurogenetic terms it proves the power of the oxytocin reward system. I suspect that a study which swaps a romantic partner with a trusted friend or colleague would achieve the same result. In fact, quite a few studies since the famous 1999 Connecticut study have shown that an operation or any medical procedure’s success depends on the level of trust between a physician and his or her patient.      


Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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