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Social stress

August 11, 2003|Dianne Partie Lange | Special to The Times

Having a supportive circle of friends and family helps us cope with life's stresses, but all relationships are not created equal. People we feel ambivalent about may actually increase our stress and cause blood pressure to rise, researchers say.

For three days, 102 men and women, 18 to 46, wore blood pressure monitors, discretely concealed beneath their clothing. Every time they had a social exchange with another person, they pressed a button to record their blood pressure. They also kept diaries and answered questions about the people with whom they interacted. The effect of these real-life encounters has not been measured in this way before, says Julianne Holt-Lunstad, assistant professor of psychology at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. She points out that prior studies on blood pressure and health had been done in a lab.

When the researchers analyzed the data, they discovered that having positive or negative feelings about someone caused little change in blood pressure during the interaction. But when those exchanges involved a person about whom the study subjects had conflicting feelings, their blood pressure increased a few points. One reason for the rise is that dealing with an ambivalent relationship requires more effort and attention, says Holt-Lunstad. It's also unpredictable.

"When you're dealing with a person that you feel negative about, you can discount much of what they say or you can avoid them," she says. But an ambivalent relationship is usually with someone you care about. "That's why it's so upsetting."

Although the increase in blood pressure was small, it was significant, says Holt-Lunstad, and if such interactions are ongoing, it could have a potential effect on a person's health.

This study was published in the July's Health Psychology.

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