I write a lot about how the mind and body are connected and that our emotions originate in our bodies. I also write about how change happens through learning to be aware of our emotions and being able to feel them without becoming overwhelmed or needing to suppress them.
Recently I came across a blog in the New York Times which considered a study conducted in the 1980s at the University of California, Berkeley, which aimed to show the impact that how we fight with our partners has on our health. It makes for interesting reading.
The researchers took a group of married heterosexual couples and asked them to first talk about their day together for 15 minutes (the control conversation) and then to shift to discussing a contentious issue between them. The study participants were filmed and their bodily cues were studied to establish the emotions they were feeling. As all emotions are embodied and many of us are unaware of what we are actually feeling moment to moment, this was a very accurate way of establishing what emotion the participants’ bodies were experiencing. For example, anger is expressed in the body with a lowering of the eyebrows, a widening of the eyes, flushing of the skin and an increase in the pitch of the voice.
The researchers then focused on two defence strategies that participants seemed to adopt when they were fighting – anger and stonewalling. The latter would be termed suppression or repression in the language of psychotherapy.
The results showed that those who expressed their anger had a predisposition to developing cardiac problems, while those who stonewalled (repressed their feelings) were more likely to experience back and muscular problems. What’s more, the study participants who reacted angrily seemed to never experience the muscular and back pains of the stonewallers, and vice-versa.
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The finding makes sense in that uncontained anger will manifest in higher blood pressure, leading to possible cardiac problems, and what we repress is ‘held’ in the body.
The conclusion seems to be that poor relationships are literally bad for your health.
What the study and blog did not discuss is how to fight healthily, as all couples fight (and conflict can be healthy, not only in ensuring we are getting our needs met, but also in keeping the relationship alive). It also implies that anger is detrimental to our health, which it most definitely is not, provided we can experience and communicate it healthily.
In our next blog we will discuss some tools for managing healthy conflict in relationships. Or if you want help with your relationship or managing your emotions, please contact us for either individual or couple therapy in Lewes or Hove.
Mark Vahrmeyer is a UKCP Registered Psychotherapist working in private practice.
Click here to download a full PDF of this post as well as information on Managing Conflict for Emotional and Physical Health.