Being in a healthy romantic relationship can help people face life's difficulties, from times of illness to moments of worry and stress. Now, a study suggests that simply imagining receiving support from your significant other can boost your coping skills.
Studies have shown that being in the presence of a romantic partner helps mitigate numerous factors of discomfort and stress.
For instance, one study has shown that participants who received painful stimuli felt less pain if they were close to their partners.
Recently, a team of psychologists from the University of Arizona in Tucson has conducted a study that suggests that being in the presence of your partner can help you cope with stress and that, more intriguing still, even just thinking about your significant other can have the same positive effects.
The research, which features in the journal Psychophysiology, involved 102 participants to whom the investigators assigned a stress-inducing task.
This task required each volunteer to dip one foot into 3-inch-deep water with temperatures between 38–40°F (approximately 3.3–4.4°C).
To establish the amount of stress that each participant felt, the researchers assessed their blood pressure, heart rate, and heart rate variability before, during, and at the end of the experiment.
A partner's presence in your mind
All of the study participants were in long-term romantic relationships. For the purpose of the current study, the researchers split the volunteers into three groups.
The people in the first group had their romantic partners sitting quietly with them while they completed the stressful task. The people in the second group received the instruction to simply imagine receiving support from their partners while completing the task.
Finally, the remaining participants had to think about the events of their day while taking part in the experiment.
When the participants submerged their foot in the cold water, the researchers found that those who either had their partner close by or imagined their partner being next to them had a lower blood pressure — indicative of their reaction to stress — than the individuals who thought about their day while taking part in this task.
However, both heart rate and heart rate variability remained consistent among all of the participants, regardless of the experimental conditions.
The importance of relationships
"This [finding] 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," says senior study author Kyle Bourassa.
"And it appears that thinking of your partner as a source of support can be just as powerful as actually having them present," he adds.
Bourassa does, however, note that the current study looked only at college undergraduates, a very specific cohort, and he suggests that future research should aim to include participants of more diverse ages.
Should other studies replicate the current findings, the researcher believes that this could provide relevant information for people who have to cope with high levels of stress on a regular basis.
"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," notes Bourassa.
"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."