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How Healthy Relationships Help You Have a Healthier Body

Have you ever left an upsetting conversation feeling physically ill? Maybe your stomach became upset, your sleep was disrupted, or you had sudden chest pain. But are these physical symptoms all in your head? We spoke with Joy Giorgio, behavioral health therapist at Banner Thunderbird Medical Center, about how relationships can affect not just your mental health, but your physical health as well.

How Stress Affects Your Body

In addition to feelings of anxiety, restlessness, irritability and anger, stress can also lead to physical symptoms, including headaches, stomach upset, sleep problems, chest pain and muscle tension. Stress can also lead to behavioral changes, including drug or alcohol abuse, social withdrawal and eating disorders.

By recognizing the connection between our emotions and physical health you can see how healthy relationships can be an integral part of healing the mind and body.

When you experience stress in a relationship various systems within the body are activated to tell your body how to react to that stress. Research has shown that chronic flooding of these systems can lead to decreased immune function and increased risk for infections, autoimmune diseases, coronary artery diseases, some cancers, and slower healing wounds. Other research has also shown that anger can lead to an increase in cardiovascular symptoms, while stonewalling can lead to an increase in musculoskeletal symptoms.

In short, poor relationships do take a physical toll on your body.

In contrast, research has shown high-quality, healthy relationships are consistently linked to improved health and reduced mortality. The effects of relationship quality on physical health are like that of smoking and can have even greater effects on overall health than one’s BMI or exercise.

Should I Stay or Should I Go

When looking at your relationship you might think, “I’m not being abused, but my relationship could be unhealthy. Should I stay or go?”

First, tap into your “wise mind” to make a value-based decision. Your wise mind is your intuition—the little voice inside that we sometimes ignore. That intuition—sometimes referred to as listening to your gut or your heart—is a good source of wisdom. If we listen to it, it can help in our decision making.

In addition to your intuition, look honestly at the behaviors in your relationship before making your decision on whether to stay or leave.

Healthy behaviors include:

  • Expressing pride in each other
  • Feeling you are part of a team
  • Always feeling safe with the other
  • Having fun together (more often than not)
  • Feeling nurtured and comforted
  • Enjoy talking about the history of your relationship
  • Spending time with your friends as well as with each other’s
  • Encouraging each other’s individual interests
  • Accepting responsibility for your own actions and apologizing when you are wrong

Unhealthy behaviors include:

  • Extreme jealousy
  • Stonewalling
  • Criticism
  • Contempt
  • Constantly putting you down or calling names
  • Defensiveness
  • Blaming
  • Tries to convince you or others that you are “crazy”
  • Shaming or humiliating
  • Doesn't take the other person seriously
  • Plays mind games or manipulates
  • Threatened to hurt the other or themselves if you leave
  • Withdraws affection to punish the other
  • Depends completely on the other to meet all needs

It's important to remember happy couples don’t necessarily have fewer struggles. They may face great challenges, but when they describe these times in their lives, they share how—despite the fact that they may have felt disconnected momentarily—the triumph over the struggle resulted in an even deeper connection.

When and How to Seek Help

You should consider many factors when deciding whether to leave a relationship. First, consider safety. If you are being abused, whether physically, emotionally, sexually or financially, it’s time to go! No question. Domestic violence (DV) gets worse over time. On average, three women die every day from DV. If you are in a DV relationship, get a safe phone and call the National DV hotline for help. If possible, do not call from your own phone or look at information on your own computer. Your partner may find this, and it can be dangerous. In relationships that involve DV, one of the most dangerous times for a woman is within the first 24 hours after she leaves. Thus, it’s vital that you create a safe exit plan.

Additional Resources

If you or a loved one are in need of support and want more information about maintaining healthy relationships, speak with a Banner behavioral health specialist near you.

For additional reading about maintaining healthy relationships, check out these other articles:

Behavioral Health Relationships Wellness