Most of us are well aware by now that distress (the “negative” kind of stress) is terrible for health. To make matters worse, we live in a world that makes it very difficult to maintain stress “equilibrium”.
To put it very simply, most of us are overworked, underpaid, and underappreciated. We are often forced to juggle multiple priorities (after all, “multitasking” is the thing now, right?) and are even required, at times, to choose between our family, friends, work or something else.
Thankfully, we have the people who care for and love us waiting at home, right?
Well, most relationships are positive influences on our life. However, when the people we care for are constantly causing our internal “stress meter” to rise, there is a serious problem.
After all, loved ones are supposed to be a refuge to our frustrations, not a catalyst. On the worst day, we should be able to lean on someone who comforts us; not someone who judges. It is perhaps no surprise to learn that relationships, bonds that are supposed to bring joy, can also exacerbate stress depending on the person you’re dealing with.
This segues into our topic for this article: stressful relationships can be (literally) deadly. We are not referring to (tragic) death as a result of murder but from stress caused by people who are designated our support system.
Scientists Explain How Stressful Relationships Affect Your Health
At Copenhagen University in Denmark, Rikke Lund, along with her colleagues, sought out to discover the impact of stressful relationships on our health. This simple question was asked to 10,000 people: “In your everyday life, do you experience conflicts with any of the following people?”
- Family members
Participants between the ages of 36 and 52 answered: “always,” “often,” “sometimes,” “seldom,” or never for each relationship detailed above.
After 11 years, 422 died. Now, that number is nothing out of the ordinary – it’s a standard death rate for these age groups. However, what is intriguing is that those who answered “always” or “often” in the survey died at two to three times higher than other participants.
Fortunately, none of the people that passed had been a victim of violence. Causes of death were broad.However, they saw disproportionate numbers of people dying from liver cirrhosis (brought on by alcoholism), cancer, and heart disease. It has been discovered that distress plays a significant role in developing alcoholism and heart disease: another possible linkage discovered.
Additionally, mortality numbers were much higher for closer relationships (spouse, children) than for those of a more distant nature; this is another piece of information that provides credence to the notion that stressful relationships can contribute to death.
Lund and her colleagues posed a slightly different question this same group: “In your everyday life, do you feel that any of those people (in the prior question) demand too much of you or seriously worry you?” It turns out (sadly) that those faced with frequent demands or worries from a spouse or child had a 50 to 100 percent higher chance of dying during the 11 years.
So…what’s the answer?
Understanding that stress created by difficult relationships is particularly harmful is the first (perhaps most important) step. However, now it’s us to each one of us to work on two things: (1) Conflict management skills and (2) Decision-making ability.
Let us explain.
Conflict management is necessary for two reasons:
- It helps avoid relationship-based stress
- It helps to resolve relationship-based problems when they arise.
Our typical response is to stew in anger or ignore the problem altogether – neither of which are effective in the least. It’s important – especially for our health – to have commonsense skills that allow us to navigate tribulations in a relationship.
Decision-making ability, as it applies to a stressful relationship, is very simple. Do you stay stick with the relationship or not? Do you try to work things out or not? Or do you simply walk away?
It’d be nice to say that there is no right or wrong answer to either question, but there definitely is. It’s up to us to examine, weigh the pros and cons, and make the right decision for our health. There is nothing (nothing!) more important.