How Chronic Stress Affects Relationships

How Chronic Stress Affects Relationships

Stressful life events like financial problems, health scares or a dysfunctional household can drain you emotionally and physically. They can also be difficult to resolve, especially if they’re long-lasting.

Left untreated, chronic stress can lead to psychiatric disorders like anxiety and depression. It can even damage your physical health, by causing high blood pressure and obesity.

1. Loneliness

Feelings of loneliness can increase the risk of psychiatric and physical disorders. They can lead to stress, depression, rheumatoid arthritis, sleep problems, heart disease, and accelerated physiological aging. Those with chronic feelings of loneliness may also develop dementia or Alzheimer’s.

People with loneliness are at risk for a higher prevalence of depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder than those who do not.

Researchers have linked loneliness to a host of physiological stress responses, including altered activity of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and other inflammatory mediators. Feeling lonely can result in a flattening of the normal diurnal cortisol rhythm, which is important for healthy immune function. Loneliness has also been linked to increased inflammation, lower levels of antioxidants and metabolites that protect against oxidative damage, and decreased activity of antiviral genes in the liver.

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In one study, researchers asked married couples to have a series of six-minute conversations about their stressors and their perceptions of their partner’s needs for support. The couples were then videotaped while engaging in these conversations. The results revealed that individuals tended to provide more support when they felt their partners needed it. This supports the theory that a sense of empathy for others’ experiences is a key factor in helping us regulate our stress and provides additional evidence that the “tend-and-befriend” model of biobehavioral stress regulation works (Taylor et al., 2000).

When your feelings of loneliness are connected to chronic stress, it is important to seek out ways to reduce that stress and improve your mood. If you still feel lonely, be sure to let a trusted friend know what’s going on and ask for help.

2. Guilt

Guilt is a normal response to a negative outcome, but excessive guilt can have a serious impact on relationships. When feelings of guilt get out of control, it can lead to a sense of shame that causes people to hide parts of their lives and distance themselves from those around them. This can have a profoundly negative impact on mental health. For example, it can contribute to anxiety disorders like obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression. It can also lead to a lack of trust and resentment towards those in our lives that we feel we can’t rely on.

Several studies have linked feelings of guilt with the development of PTSD. This research has led to the theory of a “guilt-based” model of PTSD.

The present study aimed to gain insight into this notion by experimentally assessing the influence of short-term, induced feelings of guilt on stressor-related intrusions. Participants were exposed to a staged computer crash and loss of data and then assigned to either blame or no-blame condition. The blame condition was designed to elicit high levels of guilt by emphasizing their involvement and wrongdoing in the incident. In line with this hypothesis, the results showed that the blame group reported more intrusions and higher associated distress on the day of the computer crash compared to the no-blame group. This effect was mediated by guilt, as indicated by elevated scores on the TRGI Guilt Cognitions scale.

However, other negative emotions elicited by the stressor such as shame and distress were no significant covariates for intrusion frequency or distress. This suggests that guilt alone influences the occurrence of these thoughts and that other emotions, such as shame or distress, do not mediate the observed effects.

3. Resentment

When you experience stress, your body releases hormones that make your brain more alert, tense your muscles, and increase your pulse. However, if you continue to experience stress over an extended period, your body may develop a heightened stress response that can affect your physical and mental health.

For example, if you have financial problems, an unhappy marriage, or ongoing job issues, you might suffer from chronic stress. Over time, this can lead to high blood pressure, weight gain, and a higher risk for heart disease and depression. It can also interfere with your ability to sleep and keep you from feeling energized.

Chronic stress also tends to occur in the context of adverse socioeconomic conditions, such as poverty, poor housing, and inadequate educational opportunities.

One way you might be able to break the cycle of chronic stress is by focusing on forgiveness. Whether it’s a spat with your spouse or long-held resentment toward a family member, forgiving can help to release negative emotions like anger and hostility. Forgiving also allows you to move forward with your life and build a stronger relationship.

Regardless of the cause of your stress, it’s important to take steps to manage it and minimize its impact on your life. For instance, if you have ongoing concerns about finances or health, talk with your doctor about developing a plan to address them.

Another option is to seek out counseling from a licensed professional counselor. A licensed counselor can provide you with a variety of tools and techniques for dealing with stress, as well as give you the support you need to feel empowered in your relationships.

4. Conflict

While acute stress is normal, and sometimes necessary — like when you’re in a car accident or having to give an important presentation, chronically elevated levels of stress can have lasting negative effects on your relationships. Stressful situations may also trigger a fight or flight response in your brain and body. Your heart rate increases, your breathing quickens, and your muscles tighten.

Chronically high levels of stress can also cause you to be less able to take the perspective of other people. It can affect your ability to understand why someone disagrees with you and may make you unable to find common ground. When this happens, you may become more likely to respond negatively to each other during conflict, and may even end up shutting each other out.

Whether it’s a disagreement over money, a power struggle, or infighting among siblings or friends, family conflicts can cause a lot of stress. It can lead to unresolved feelings of anger and resentment that can strain your relationship and lead to long-lasting negative consequences.

Research has shown that a healthy approach to conflict can help improve the quality of your relationships. During conflict, you can learn more about each other and find out how the other person sees the world. You can gain a better understanding of each other’s perspectives, which can lead to more compromises and solutions in the future.

If you and your partner are struggling with conflict, it may be helpful to consult a couples therapist. A therapist can teach you strategies to overcome communication barriers and manage difficult emotions. They can also help you develop the skills needed to handle and resolve conflict in a healthy way that strengthens your relationship.

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