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Visualizing your partner's face can lower stress levels

Need to reduce your stress? Try thinking of the face of your better half.

Photo credit: Sept Commercial on Unsplash
  • A new study shows just thinking about your partner's face can lower stress.
  • Those who pictured their significant other during a stress test had lower blood pressure increases than those who didn't.
  • The results add to the pile of research that shows how great being in a relationship is for your health.

A new study from the University of Arizona shows that thinking about your significant other's face can reduce stress just as well as having them with you. This opens the doors to new coping strategies to help people deal with stress, even if they must endure it alone.

How on Earth did they find that out?

For the study, which was published in the journal Psychophysiology on January 4, 102 participants in committed romantic relationships underwent a stress test while either visualizing their partner, having them in the room with them, or thinking about their day. The subjects were randomly assigned to each group and had baseline blood pressure and heart rate measurements taken.

During the test, the subjects placed their feet in near-freezing water and kept them there for a few minutes. Their blood pressure levels and heart rates were measured both during and after this task.


The poor people told to think about their day had their blood pressure go up by around fifteen points. The subjects who were told to think about their partners, however, saw their systolic blood pressure go up by around ten points — the same increase those who had their partners physically present in the room with them experienced.

Similar results were found for diastolic blood pressure. Pulse rates and other stress responses were unaffected by any of the coping mechanisms. While previous studies have shown that thinking of your partner or having them in the room can reduce stress responses, this study is the first to suggest that they are equally useful.

Did relationship quality have any effect on these outcomes? I’m asking for a friend.

Yes, but not in the way you might think. In the control group tests, those poor people who were told to think about their day, how much their blood pressure levels rose in reaction to the stress of the cold water was related to how highly they rated the quality of their relationship.

For the people with the highest quality relationships, their blood pressure went up by the same amount as those who had their better halves in the room with them or were thinking about them. People who were in committed relationships saw similar blood pressure changes no matter how great their relationships were.

This suggests that being in a high-quality relationship helps people to deal with stress even when their partners are not present or even being thought about.

What use could this research have?

Lead author Kyle Bourassa explained his thoughts on the study's most obvious application:

"Life is full of stress, and one critical way we can manage this stress is through our relationships – either with our partner directly or by calling on a mental image of that person. There are many situations, including at work, with school exams or even during medical procedures, where we would benefit from limiting our degree of blood pressure reactivity, and these findings suggest that a relational approach to doing so can be quite powerful."

The study also supports previous research that shows people in committed romantic relationships have better health outcomes such as longer life, lower baseline stress levels, faster healing, and healthier habits.

Bourassa also commented on this and said that this study, "suggests that one way being in a romantic relationship might support people's health is through allowing people to better cope with stress and lower levels of cardiovascular reactivity to stress across the day."

Of course, like many other psychology experiments, the test subjects used here were mostly college students. The authors acknowledge the need for further studies with people from different age groups. The study also exclusively focused on heterosexuals, leaving the question of whether similar benefits exist for those in other kinds of relationships unanswered.

Being in a committed relationship has well-known health benefits. Now we know that some of these benefits can be tapped into by merely thinking about our partner. While just thinking about your partner might not be enough to dull the pain of every stressful event entirely, it can help you get through the experience and, after all, isn't that what a supportive better half is supposed to do?

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Photo: Luis Robayo/AFP via Getty Images
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
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