When your stress levels get ratcheted up, it’s comforting to have your spouse or partner by your side…but of course that’s not how life works. Most of us are on our own when we’re racing to meet a deadline at work, for example, or undergoing an uncomfortable medical procedure.

But don’t despair. In a study recently published in Psychophysiology, simply imagining your loved one’s presence during stressful situations can be just as good as the real thing…at least when it comes to keeping your blood pressure under control. Here’s how the research unfolded…

Study details: Researchers recruited 102 volunteers who described themselves as being in a committed, high-quality romantic relationship. To test the participants’ stress responses, they were asked to submerge one of their feet in three inches of water chilled to just above freezing (38°F to 40°F) for four minutes. The participants’ blood pressure, heart rate (beats per minute) and heart rate variability (the changes in time between heartbeats) were measured before, during and after the task.

During the big chill, one-third of the volunteers were randomly chosen to have their romantic partner in the room with them…one-third were asked to focus on a mental image of their partner…and the remaining participants (the control group) were instructed to think about what had happened or would happen during their day.

When measuring heart rate and heart rate variability, there was no variability among the three groups. However, the participants with a partner who was physically present and those who simply imagined their loved one had a lower blood pressure response to the stress test than those who were told to think about their day.

The real kicker: Thinking about the romantic partner was just as effective at minimizing the participants’ blood pressure reactivity as actually having the person physically present. The study results may help explain why quality romantic relationships are linked to better health in a significant body of scientific evidence.

“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,” explains Kyle Bourassa, lead study author and a University of Arizona doctoral student in psychology.

Give it a try: The next time you feel the stress building, close your eyes and create a detailed mental picture of your romantic partner. Concentrate on an image of his/her face…and a think of a meaningful experience you two have shared. With that image in mind, you’re likely to have a better shot at keeping your blood pressure under control.

Related Articles