When we feel supported, we feel less stress. But sometimes we think we are being supportive of a romantic partner and we’re not. Who hasn’t experienced the self-satisfaction of feeling like we’re ‘helping’ only to find we’ve only made the situation worse.
Wake Forest communication professor Jennifer Priem studies dating relationships and explores the connection between supportive conversations and physiological signs of stress reduction.
Using saliva samples, Priem can measure changes in stress by determining when cortisol levels rise and when they fall as a result of support conversations between dating partners. Cortisol is a stress hormone that, when over active can cause heart disease as well as other health problems such as headaches, sleep problems, and concentration impairment.
A supportive partner has the power to reduce the levels of cortisol by taking specific actions that help calm tension and reduce stress. Supportive communication can alleviate distress and improve a partner’s emotional state.
“The fastest stress recovery comes from explicit messages,” says Priem.
“When a partner is stressed they are unable to focus on interpreting messages well. Clarity and eye contact help.” Jennifer Priem, assistant professor of communication
Other features of supportive communication that have been shown to reduce stress include:
“Cookie cutter support messages don’t really work,” says Priem. “Stress creates a frame through which messages are interpreted. Support that is clear and explicit in validating feelings and showing interest and concern is most likely to lower cortisol levels and increase feelings of wellbeing and safety. If you aren’t seeing improvement in your partner’s anxiety, you may need to change your approach.”
The benefit both partners will receive from engaging in effective support goes beyond the immediate stress recovery after the conversation. The result of prolonged exposure to stress hormones, such as cortisol, is wear and tear on the body. Because the rate of physiological recovery after exposure to everyday stressors and hassles results in more or less cortisol exposure over the course of a lifetime, supportive communication that accelerates cortisol recovery, even slightly, may have longer health benefits. Thus, individuals who are able to facilitate faster stress recovery for their partner create immediate and long term relational and health benefits, strengthening the relationship and the individual.