The Mental Image of a Loved One Can Keep Down Blood Pressure

New study: Just thinking about your partner reduces blood pressure reactivity.

Posted Jan 23, 2019

stockfour/Shutterstock
Source: stockfour/Shutterstock

The news has been rough lately. It’s hard to read it and not have your blood pressure spike. Luckily, a new study in the journal Psychophysiology provides us with a strategy to keep our hypertension in check: Just think about your loved one.

Warning: This study is profoundly adorable.

Researchers recruited 102 undergraduate students who were in “committed romantic relationships.” (Homosexual relationships were excluded, which is rude, but for the sake of this being a story about adorable science, we’ll let it go.) The “committed romantic relationships” also needed to be at least one month long. (Again, let’s just go with it.)

When participants came into the lab, they watched cute nature videos for one minute to bring down their blood pressure and heart rate. Then they were told that the researchers were going to have them dunk their foot in ice water for 4 minutes, while the researchers measured their blood pressure and pulse.

Participants were randomized to one of three groups:

  • The first group had their romantic partners in the room with them during the foot freeze — partner present. 
  • The second group was told to think about their romantic partner during the foot chill, but the partner wasn’t physically present — partner in mind. 
  • The last group was told to just think about their day and put their foot in the bucket—control. 

Two to three people from each group thought the water was too damn cold and couldn’t hold their foot there for 4 minutes, so they were excluded. Luckily, a similar number from each group dropped out, so results were not dramatically affected.

Get this: The blood pressure of the partner present people didn’t spike as much as controls. The same was true for the partner in mind participants. In a boon for people in long-distance relationships, the blood pressure benefit was just as strong in the partner in mind group as in the partner present group.

If you’re looking to guilt a long-distance lover into visiting, however, do not fear: There are results for you as well. Those with their partners present reported less physical pain from the task, while those just thinking about their partners didn’t have as much pain benefit.

This study is only a small part of a larger literature showing that loving relationships are associated with less stress, less physiologic reactivity, and even a longer lifespan. So next time the news stresses you out, or it gets really cold, think about a loved one, even if they aren’t there. Or alternatively, think about this study.

References

Bourassa KJ, Ruiz JM, Sbarra DA. The impact of physical proximity and attachment working models on cardiovascular reactivity: Comparing mental activation and romantic partner presence. Psychophysiology. 2019 Jan 4:e13324.