FRIDAY, Feb. 22 (HealthDay News) -- 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.
The study was recently published online and will appear in an
upcoming print issue of
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
But for the highly anxious, she added, "it's a chronic
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
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 and T-cells.
Participants with higher levels of anxiety about the marriage
produced about 11 percent more cortisol than those with lower
anxiety levels. Spouses with higher anxiety levels had between 11
percent and 22 percent lower levels of T cells than those with less
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 effect.
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.
"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, in Virginia.
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
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 U.S.
National Institutes of Health.
To learn more about improving a relationship, visit the
American Psychological Association.
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