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Friday, June 24, 2016

Conflicting Spousal Emotions Create Environment for Future Health Outcomes

"Our findings reveal a new level of precision in how emotions are linked to health, and how our behaviours over time can predict the development of negative health outcomes."
"Our findings suggest particular emotions expressed in a relationship predict vulnerability to particular health problems, and those emotions are anger and stonewalling."
"For years, we've known that negative emotions are associated with negative health outcomes, but this study dug deeper to find that specific emotions are linked to specific health problems."
"This is one of the many ways that our emotions provide a window for glimpsing important qualities of our future lives."
Robert Levenson, psychologist, University of California-Berkeley

"We looked at marital-conflict conversations that lasted just fifteen minutes and could predict the development of health problems over twenty years for husbands based on the emotional behaviour that they showed during these fifteen minutes."
"Conflict happens in every marriage, but people deal with it in different ways. Some of us explode with anger; some of us shut down. Our study shows that these different emotional behaviours can predict the development of different health problems in the long run."
Claudia Haase, assistant professor of human development and social policy, Northwestern University 
Getty images/Stock photo

A new study published in the journal Emotion was based on twenty years of data                    gleaned from tracking a cohort of 156 middle-aged and older heterosexual couples living in the San Francisco Bay Area, followed since 1989. At the present time, the surviving spouses of those who participated in the study have advanced in age, to their 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s. Every five years the couples were routinely videotaped in a laboratory setting while they spoke of events transpiring in their lives.

They spoke of disagreements as well as enjoyment in their lives together. With this recorded data, experts in the field of behaviour, accustomed to coding what they interpreted, rated the interactions they saw, placing them into a range of emotions and behaviours, taking cues from facial expressions, body language and tone of voice. The spouses' end of the research included their responses to questionnaires that included an assessment in detail of specific health problems they encountered along the way.

The latest study of the participants and the acquired and accumulated data had researchers focusing on the consequences to health of anger as well as "stonewalling"; an emotion-suppressing behaviour commonly used by some participants. Sadness and fear were also studied as possible predictors of health outcomes, but no significant associations were recognized. Researchers monitored videotaped conversations for indicators to behaviour such as tightly pressed lips, knitted brows, raised or lowered voices and tightened jaws.
Anger is linked to heart disease and stoicism to muscle stress in study of couples (iStockphoto)
Anger is linked to heart problems and stoicism to muscle stress in study of couples. (iStockphoto)

"Away" behaviour, represented by facial stiffness, rigid neck muscles and little-to-no eye contact exemplified the stonewalling technique. The data collected was examined for their link to health symptoms which had been measured on a five-year interval over the twenty-year span of the study. Spouses observed to lose their calm more readily were seen to be at greater risk of developing chest pain, high blood pressure and other manner of cardiovascular symptoms over time.

Those test subjects who stonewalled by keeping their speech to a minimum, exhibiting a stiffness in their demeanor and  avoiding eye contact were likelier to develop backaches, stiff necks or joints, and generalized muscle tension. The study is among a number that Dr. Levenson has focused on throughout his career; the relationships that develop during a marriage of long term.

The hope is that the findings of the study authors, Drs. Levenson and Haase, might lead to those with a tendency to too readily succumb to anger to consider anger management interventions. Those likelier to withdraw their emotions substantively during such marital encounters could conceivably benefit from heightened awareness, to resist the impulse to restrain their emotions.

The authors' conclusion was that overall, the link between emotions and health outcomes was more evident for the males in a marriage, yet some key correlations were also discovered in the wives. The study succeeded in steering the researchers in the direction of sucessfully anticipating which spouses would development ailments in the future based on the manner in which they reacted to disagreements.

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