Rosie Shrout, Purdue University – Stress is Contagious in Relationships

If your partner is stressed, chances are you are too.

Rosie Shrout, assistant professor of human development and family studies at Purdue University, examines how one partner affects the other.

Dr. Rosie Shrout (she/her/hers) is an Assistant Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at Purdue University. She is a social-health psychologist studying how couples’ stress affects their relationships and health. Her work focuses on the underlying psychological, behavioral, and biological pathways connecting stress to people’s own and their partners’ relational and physical health across adulthood.

Stress is Contagious in Relationships

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You might already know that stress can affect your own health, but what you might not realize is that your stress – and how you manage it – is contagious. Your stress can spread around, particularly to your loved ones.

Couples who manage stress poorly and are hostile toward one another, like being critical, sarcastic, eye rolling, or using an unpleasant tone of voice, have higher stress hormones, inflammation, and blood pressure and their wounds even heal more slowly.

In a recent study, my colleagues and I found that arguing with a stressed partner altered a person’s own cortisol levels, an important stress hormone that increases multiple disease risks. People with stressed partners who used negative behaviors during the conflict had higher cortisol levels even four hours after the conflict ended. These findings suggest that arguing with a stressed partner could have lasting biological consequences for ourselves.

What can you do to reduce stress in your relationships? First, talk to and validate each other. Tell your partner you understand their feelings, and talk about the big and little things before they escalate. Sometimes partners hide problems to protect each other, but this can make things worse. Being there and listening to one another can have good health effects for each of you.

Next, show your love. Hug each other, hold hands, and be kind. This can lower cortisol levels and make you feel happier.

Then remind yourself that you’re part of a team. Brainstorm solutions, be each other’s cheerleaders, and celebrate the wins together.

In short, tell your partner that you’re there for them, preferably while you’re hugging, and take each other’s stress seriously. Working as an open and honest team is a key ingredient to a healthy and happy relationship.

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