Researcher Youngmee Kim and colleagues studied 168 married couples, each of whom had one partner diagnosed with either breast cancer or prostate cancer two years prior. The study saw several significant findings:
My Stress is Your StressAs mentioned, one partner’s stress did indeed impact the wellbeing of the other partner. For both husbands and wives, a partner under stress had a significant impact on their own health. “Whether it is my own or my partner’s, psychological distress may impact my quality of life,” is how Kim puts it in a recent press release.
Wives' Stress Has a Greater Impact“We found an interesting pattern. The psychological distress of the female partner seemed to have the greatest effect — whether the woman was the breast cancer survivor or the caregiver of a man with prostate cancer. If the female has higher level of psychological distress, the male partner will have higher level of psychosomatic problems,” Kim said. Apparently, relieving women's stress can significantly impact both partners.
Men’s Stress Comes Out In Serious WaysPerhaps the most surprising finding is that, while men appeared to suffer more from the stress of their mate, they were less likely to report such an effect. Men tended to report less of an emotional reaction, but their bodies told a different story. “Men tend not to say that psychological stress associated with cancer diagnosis and treatment is a problem, but they tend to somatize those stresses, reporting headaches and backaches. Maybe men are not conditioned or socialized to express those touchy feelings. They tend to show those feelings — let them come out — through their body,” Kim said.
One reason that a wife's stress affects her husband may be that she is able to offer less emotional support when stressed. Another reason that a wife’s stress can impact her husband is that women tend to help their husbands maintain healthy habits.
What It Means To YouThese findings are something that both men and women should be aware of, as they have some pretty serious implications:
- First, it reminds us all that stress management is not only for us, but for those we love. Because we touch so many people, effectively managing our own stress levels can bring peace to us and to those around us. (This resource can help you to find stress relievers that can work for you.)
- Second, we must all learn to tell when our bodies are reacting to stress, recognize when our stress levels are high, and have strategies on hand for reducing and managing the stress we’re experiencing. Our ability (or inability) to do this can have significant health implications. (Could stress be affecting your health? Take this stress and health test.)
- Third, it’s important to realize that not everyone expresses their feelings in the same way, and even if a loved one says that they are doing OK, they may be under heavy levels of stress. Looking for ways to ease a loved one’s burden and offering support during times of crisis may be necessary regardless of whether the person is asking for help. This holds true for spouses as well as other family members, friends and neighbors.
- Finally, if you feel that stress is getting to be too much for you, even if it's caregiver stress (especially if it's caregiver stress), don't be afraid to seek the support you need, whether from close friends and family, or from a therapist.
Sources: Rainforth MV, Schneider RH, Nidich SI, Gaylord-King C, Salerno JW, Anderson JW. Stress Reduction Programs in Patients with Elevated Blood Pressure: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Current Hypertension Reports, December 2007. Kim, Y., et al. Quality of Life of Couples Dealing with Cancer: Dyadic and Individual Adjustment Among Breast and Prostate Cancer Survivors and Their Spousal Caregivers. Annals of Behavioral Medicine April, 2008.