Feeling insecure and frequently anxious about your romantic
relationship can actually harm your health, new research contends.
The feelings may boost levels of a stress hormone and lower
your immune system, according to Ohio State researchers.
In their study, married couples who were often anxious about
their relationship - wondering if their partner truly loved them, for example -
had higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and lower levels of T-cells,
which are important in the immune system to fight off infections, lead author
Lisa Jaremka said.
"These concerns about rejection and whether or not you
are truly cared for do have physiological consequences that could, in the
long-term, negatively affect health," said Jaremka, a postdoctoral fellow
at Ohio State University's Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research.
Jaremka said she was not describing the normal now-and-then
concerns about a relationship. "Everybody has these thoughts and feelings
sometimes," she said. "They are a natural part of being in a
But for the highly anxious, she added, "it's a chronic
How the study was
Jaremka studied 85 couples, all married for an average of
more than 12 years. Most were white. Their average age was 39. All the partners
reported their general anxiety levels and symptoms, and answered questions
about their marriage and about their sleep quality.
The couples were generally healthy. Those with wives who
were expecting a baby, or who drank excess alcohol or caffeine or had health
problems affecting the immune system were all excluded.
The couples provided saliva samples over three days and
blood samples twice. From these, the research team measured levels of cortisol
Participants with higher levels of anxiety about the
marriage produced about 11% more cortisol than those with lower anxiety
levels. Spouses with higher anxiety levels had between 11% and 22% lower levels of T cells than those with less anxiety.
Jaremka said the two findings are likely linked, because
cortisol can hamper production of T-cells.
The study found a link or association between relationship
anxiety and the body's stress and immune response, but cannot prove cause and
While the study did not track whether the highly anxious
partners got sick more often, the link is reasonable, Jaremka said, based on
other research about the ill effects of chronically high stress hormone levels.
Reduce your stress
"A lot of the negative consequences of high cortisol
are beyond the common flu," she said. Rather, she added, high level have
been linked to heart problems, sleep problems, depression and other conditions.
Another expert who also studies attachment styles said the
link between attachment anxiety and stress is not new, but the link to immune
system function is newer. And it is "not that surprising," said Jeni
Burnette, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Richmond,
Until more research is in, Jaremka suggests people who are
highly anxious in relationships work on reducing their stress. Reduce stress by
yoga or other exercise or meditation, she suggested. That would lower cortisol,
presumably, and help their health.
Burnette suggested that highly anxious partners might also
try to be more forgiving, and not keep replaying negative events such as
arguments. "Some of our work suggests that anxiously attached individuals
are less forgiving and tend to respond with more rumination," she said.
The study was supported by an American Cancer Society grant,
a Comprehensive Cancer Center at Ohio State fellowship and the US National Institutes
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