Researchers Link Certain Conflict Responses to Health Problems

angry girl
Science & Medicine

How ticked off you get – and we all get ticked off sometimes – could be an indicator of the types of illnesses you’ll face in the future. That’s what researchers from UC Berkeley and Northwestern University are claiming.

For a new study, researchers looked at how couples behave during conflicts and found that people who are prone to angry outbursts are more likely to have cardiovascular problems, while people who shut down emotionally have more musculoskeletal ailments, such as back pain and muscle stiffness.

Not too surprising, right? Hot heads are often known for having high blood pressure, and people who shrink back from emotional situations frequently have aches and pains.

UC Berkeley psychologist Robert Levenson, senior author of the study, said:

“Our findings reveal a new level of precision in how emotions are linked to health, and how our behaviors over time can predict the development of negative health outcomes.”

The study is based on two decades of data. The team controlled for factors such as age, exercise, education, smoking, and alcohol and caffeine consumption.

The husbands’ health appeared to be the most affected by emotions, but some of the key links were also observed in wives. It wasn’t too hard for researchers to predict which spouses would wind up with health problems in the future based on how they handled conflict.

Read: Proof Positive: Our Thoughts, Emotions Affect Our Physiological Health

Claudia Haase, study lead author and an assistant professor of human development and social policy at Northwestern University, told Science Daily:

“We looked at marital-conflict conversations that lasted just 15 minutes and could predict the development of health problems over 20 years for husbands based on the emotional behaviors that they showed during these 15 minutes.”

She continued:

“Conflict happens in every marriage, but people deal with it in different ways. Some of us explode with anger; some of us shut down. Our study shows that these different emotional behaviors can predict the development of different health problems in the long run.”

Study participants were part of a cohort of 156 middle-aged and older heterosexual couples living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Levenson and his colleagues have tracked the couples since 1989. The spouses that are still living are now in their 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s.

Every five years, researchers videotaped the couples in a laboratory setting as they discussed events in their lives, including areas of enjoyment and disagreement. Observing the participants’ facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice, expert behavioral coders rated the couples’ interactions for a wide range of emotions and behaviors.

The husbands and wives also filled out questionnaires that included a thorough assessment of specific health problems.

Levenson and his fellow researchers specifically looked at the health consequences of anger and an emotion-suppressing behavior called “stonewalling.” The study also examined sadness and fear as predictors of health outcomes, but did not find any significant associations.

Levenson said:

“Our findings suggest particular emotions expressed in a relationship predict vulnerability to particular health problems, and those emotions are anger and stonewalling.”

The researchers scanned the videotaped sessions for displays of anger, such as lips pressed together, knitted brows, tight jaws, and voices raised or lowered outside their normal tone.

They also looked for stonewalling, or “away” behavior – rigid neck muscles, facial stiffness, and little or no eye contact.

They then linked the data to health symptoms, which they measured every five years.

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As you may have guessed, the spouses who flew off the handle during arguments had a greater risk of experiencing high blood pressure, chest pain, and other cardiovascular problems over time.

The spouses who clammed up were more likely to suffer from stiff necks or joints, backaches, and general muscle tension.

Levenson said:

“For years, we’ve known that negative emotions are associated with negative health outcomes, but this study dug deeper to find that specific emotions are linked to specific health problems. This is one of the many ways that our emotions provide a window for glimpsing important qualities of our future lives.”


[1] Daily Mail