It’s a well-known fact that relationships are hard work. Marriage and family experts say that even the best couples have arguments now and again, and that’s totally normal when different points of view are expressed in a healthy way. But if you’re stuck in toxic relationship patterns, your body might be trying to tell you something.
Relationships and health
Our need for connection and love runs deep. In general, studies have found that healthy marriages and long-term partnerships are good for an individual’s emotional and physical well-being. According to one study, published in Psychoneuroendocrinology, researchers found that married individuals had lower levels of stress hormones than unmarried individuals. They also found that in married individuals, cortisol levels were quicker to dissipate, a pattern that’s been linked to decreased risk of heart disease and longer survival among cancer patients.
Here are some of the other health-related benefits of a healthy partnership:
A study by the American Sociological Association found that you’re three times more likely to survive heart surgery than someone who is single.
A Swedish study found that married folks are 50 percent less likely to develop dementia.
A European study found that marriage improves your diet and leads to a longer life by 15 percent.
It seems like marriage and a healthy relationship has the potential to transform your health. Sadly, experts say it also has the power to damage it. Here are some signs to look for:
1. You feel short of breath
If you feel like you can’t take a full breath around your partner, that’s a sign that your body’s sympathetic nervous system has been activated, i.e., your fight or flight response. Other signs include increased heart rate, tightness in the chest, shakiness, sweaty palms and feeling on edge. Over time, chronic stress from a trigger (like a stressful relationship) may leave you unable to relax, called adrenal fatigue, which can have serious consequences for your health.
2. You have an upset stomach
Anxiety is tied to digestive distress, says Harvard Health. If you have an upset stomach after a tense conversation with your partner, the stress may be manifesting in your gut. This is because the flight or fight response shuts down all non-essential bodily functions, including digestion, until the stressful stimulus goes away. You may also experience constipation, diarrhea, gas, bloating or indigestion.
Before you reach for the nearest bottle of Pepto Bismol, brew a cup of soothing peppermint tea, take some space and process your emotions. See what happens to your stomach when you take a time out for yourself to relax.
3. You’re gaining weight
If your pants are a little tight these days, stress at home may be the cause, says WebMD. This could be for several reasons. First, after the flight or fight response wears off, cortisol sticks around. This stress hormone sends the message to your body that you need to replenish your supplies of fat and glucose, so you reach for fattening, sugary foods that feel good.
Additionally, when there’s tension in relationships, it impacts our ability to make time for regular intimacy. And when we lack intimacy and touch, we may reach for foods that promote the same neurochemical responses as sex. Foods like chocolate, for example, can increase endorphins in the brain, much like a quick romp in the bedroom. We may also crave “comfort foods” from our childhood, typically high in salt, sugar and fat. Basically, if you’re not getting comfort from one place, you’ll find it in another. Over time, overindulgence could lead to weight gain.
4. You’re losing weight
A lack of appetite is one of the symptoms of depression or anxiety, which can be brought on by feeling stuck or helpless in a relationship. You may also notice decreased energy and increased irritability, which may indicate a lack of healthy, energizing nutrients to your system. Without your primary source of fuel, you’re driving around on emotional empty. Weight loss may be the proof.
5. It takes you a long time to get over being sick
Research shows that stress leads to compromised immunity. If you’re feeling unhappy in your household, you may notice that you get sick more often or have a hard time kicking an illness once it takes hold.
6. You’re using substances to cope
A glass of wine is a great way to relax the body and unwind the mind, for sure, but there may be a little more to your evening drink than you think. When we can’t leave a situation physically, sometimes the best choice is to leave it emotionally through alcohol, cigarettes, marijuana or other substances that give our minds a break. If you’ve noticed an increase in substance use, studies show that this could be an indicator that your body is having a hard time returning to a relaxed, neutral state without a little help.
7. You have issues with sleep
Chronic stress and an inability to relax can keep the mind alert and filled with racing thoughts. It also tenses muscles, preventing you from drifting off to sleep. If you’re having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, pay attention to the thoughts you’re having. Are you up every night ruminating about your latest fight? That’s a big indicator that you’re spending a lot of your energy worrying about your relationship.
8. You have chronic inflammation
Studies show that prolonged stress leads to increased levels of cortisol, that pesky stress hormone we talked about. Over time, this can lead to the body’s inability to fight off inflammation. Symptoms of inflammation include swollen joints, high blood pressure, digestive issues, skin problems like eczema or psoriasis, fatigue and more. Over time, chronic inflammation can become dangerous, laying the groundwork for numerous illnesses to take hold, like diabetes, heart disease and even cancer.
More symptoms of emotional stress
As you can see, stress is a big deal, no matter where it comes from. Here are some other symptoms that could clue you into your emotional health:
Aches and pains
Loss of libido
Increased blood pressure
Ringing in the ear
Cold hands or feet
Where to go from here
As you’re probably sensing by now, our body and minds are intrinsically connected. If you’re feeling stressed, you are stressed — your body won’t differentiate between the mental and physical. It’s all the same, really.
Oftentimes, awareness of stress can bring about change on its own. Just knowing that your body is experiencing the symptoms of anxiety or depression may lead you to take it easy and evaluate your relationship, work conditions and more. Exercise, yoga, meditation and tai chi are all great for this. Not only do they activate the parasympathetic nervous system and lower your blood pressure to help you calm down, they can shift your attention inward so you can sift through your feelings and begin the healing process.
If you’re struggling to make a real change in your life, and you need a little help (nothing wrong with that), it’s time to seek outside perspective. Don’t blame your partner or trash talk them to your friends and relatives. Instead, start your journey by focusing inward and speaking to a licensed clinician that you trust, be it a doctor or therapist.
Remember: your body wants you to be happy. Listen to it — it will always give you the answers you are looking for.
— Hilary Lebow