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Relationships Can Reduce the Effects of Stress

An Up-and-Comer interview with Kelly Miller

Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain
Source: Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain

It’s long been argued that good relationships can buffer stress and facilitate physical health. USC Ph.D. student Kelly Miller’s research is strengthening that case.

She’s the winner of the 2016 Davison Award for Excellence in Science-Based Clinical Practice and recipient of a five-year National Science Foundation Fellowship. Pacific Standard named her one of “Thirty Top Thinkers Under 30.”

She is the first of my Up-and-Comer interviews.

MARTY NEMKO:  Was there a moment you decided to get a Ph.D. in psychology?

KELLY MILLER:  I intended to study literature but realized that what interested me wasn’t critical theory or even a compelling plot. I loved the experience of diving deep into a character’s mind. And when I took psychology courses, I learned of interesting theories and scientific approaches to understanding what governs our mind and relationships.

MN:  Many graduate students wonder whether getting a Ph.D. is the right move. They may suffer from the Imposter Syndrome, wonder if they’re smart enough, committed enough, any of many things. It’s helpful to our readers to know that even a budding star has doubts. What’s one or more of yours?

KM: When tackling something new, I have had niggling doubts and sometimes felt overwhelmed and out of my depth. But as I’ve persevered, I’ve come to conquer fear-inducing tasks, even enjoy them. For example, I used to be intimidated by, for example, statistical techniques or sharing an idea in a meeting. Now, not only do I propose ideas, I also volunteer to run the analysis. In some meetings, I even crack jokes! There’s tons I still don’t know but I’m coming to believe that I’ll often-enough be able to figure it out. 

MN:  Now let’s turn to your research. Most psychology Ph.D. students pick a focus that addresses something in their own lives. You’ve focused on the physiological effects of family on children’s stress, including when they grow up. Is that relevant to your own life?

KM: I focus on that because family is tremendously important in my life and because family is a launchpad for vicious or virtuous cycles that can transcend generations. I love the idea that intervening with a parent has potential for improving that person’s children’s and grandchildren’s health.

MN:  What advice would you give yourself in light of your research and knowledge of yourself as an individual?

KM: I remind myself that my stressful responses to life’s challenges are there for a good reason: They clue me in that something is wrong and bolster my resources to face the threat. I also remind myself of the value of leaning on others. Plus, I check in with myself about whether I’m the kind of friend, family member, or partner who is a safe place for my loved ones to land in times of stress.

MN:  More broadly, since ongoing stress appears to influence long-term health, what can we do about it to protect ourselves and our loved ones?

KM: Well, the most straightforward answer is to work to reduce stress. That’s not always possible. In all of our lives, some stress is unavoidable. Even so, I’m excited that my research and others’ show that the physical consequences of stress are subject to reduction. For example, close relationships can keep stress from getting under our skin, thereby reducing the risk of physiological dysregulation and disease. Those relationships of course include friendships and romantic partnerships but may also include a relationship with a therapist.

MN:  Your research finds that releasing cortisol, the so-called stress hormone, isn’t always necessarily bad. Explain that.

KM: It may make more sense to think of cortisol not as the “stress hormone” but as the Goldilocks hormone, too much or too little can signal dysregulation—you need the “just right” amount to face your circumstances’ real, not magnified, demands. The problem is when your environment is chronically stressful and thus changes your body’s ability to respond flexibly.

MN:  Might it help people reduce stress’s effects to train them to take a resilient action after a setback, for example, responding to a romantic breakup by seeking an even more desirable partner. What do you think?

KM: That’s often a good move but probably only if the environment can support you taking that kind of risk. For instance, in the example you gave, are there supportive partners available? Are you skilled enough to initiate such a relationship? In some situations, it may be more adaptive to withdraw for a bit, for example, if an individual needs to build internal resources before engaging.

MN:  Does a person’s ability to respond well to stress depend on whether his or her overall life is good versus full of stress?

KM: Absolutely. Having multiple forms of adversity increases risk for maladaptive health.

MN:  As in most such research, you identified sex differences in relationships’ protectiveness against stress’s effects. Do you have a sense of how much of that is genetically versus environmentally caused?

KM: We speculate than some differences are physiological. For instance, there’s some evidence that pre- and post-puberty stressors have different effects on hypothalamic, pituitary, and adrenal (HPA) activity. Girls’ earlier onset of puberty might help explain the sex differences we found. Additionally, HPA activity varies with menstrual phase and the use of hormonal birth control. But socialization is also very important. At the risk of redundancy, close relationships are a good bet for protecting both men and women against stress's toll.

MN:  You’re doing research that hypothesizes that childhood stress increases likelihood of adult obesity. How important is excess HPA activity?

KM: HPA activity is probably one of  a number of genetic and environmental mechanisms that contribute to obesity. I’m excited to work towards filling in more links in that chain.

MN:  Another area of your research is identifying the effects of growing up amid physical aggressiveness. If someone came from a violent household in which they were beaten as a child as I was, or they observed domestic abuse, what advice would you give them for living now?

KM: First, remember that even though aggression can be passed down intergenerationally, most children from aggressive households don't grow up to be violent in their romantic relationships or with their own children. People are resilient.

If you’re experiencing consequences of growing up in an aggressive family such as being overly cautious in adult relationships, remember that you’ve learned to be cautious for a good reason. Being vigilant may have been wise as a child in an aggressive family. But take a moment to reflect on whether these behaviors are still helpful. If not, it may be time to try something new.

MN:  Do you have any advice for a parent who often hit his or her child?

That isn’t part of my research but my hunch is that you should acknowledge that you have been doing the best that you can and that you need to do better—never hit a child. Having both compassion for yourself and commitment to doing better may be the best path to lasting change.

My next Up-and-Comer interviews will be with Rob Freeman who’s researching the bases of snap judgments, Sandra Matz who’s trying to better understand consumer behavior, and Ed O’Brien who’s trying to improve how we judge ourselves and our experiences.

Marty Nemko’s bio is in Wikipedia. His newest book, his 8th, is The Best of Marty Nemko.