Stress is a normal part of life, which means that it’s also a normal part of relationships. All couples deal with the effects of stress at some point in their relationship. Unfortunately, stress can place a serious strain on a relationship, especially if a partner, or both, keeps their feelings of stress to themselves instead of discussing them. This makes it difficult for a couple to provide each other with the positive support they need and to understand what the other person is going through. A new study from Hokkaido University in Japan is shedding some light on when people are most vulnerable to stress. Keep reading to find out how this knowledge, along with couples counseling services, can help you and your partner if you’re dealing with stress.
How does stress affect us?
A new Japanese study finds that the body’s central nervous system reacts weakly and releases fewer hormones in response to stress in the evening compared to the morning. The findings, published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology Reports, suggest people may be more vulnerable to stressful events in the evening.
To test this hypothesis, medical physiologist Dr. Yujiro Yamanaka and his colleagues from Hokkaido University recruited 27 young, healthy volunteers with normal work hours and sleep habits to investigate whether the “hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal” (HPA) axis — which connects the central nervous and endocrine systems of the body — responds differently to acute psychological stress according to the time of day.
Cortisol, the primary stress hormone in humans, is released for several hours when the HPA axis is activated by a stressful event. This provides the body with energy in the face of danger. Cortisol levels are also regulated by a circadian clock in the brain and are normally high in the morning and low in the evening.
When are we most vulnerable to stress?
In the study, the researchers first measured the participants’ cortisol levels to determine a baseline. The volunteers were then divided into two groups: one that was exposed to a stress test in the morning two hours after their normal waking time, and another group that was exposed to a stress test in the evening, ten hours after their normal waking time.
The 15-minute test involved preparing and giving a presentation in front of three trained interviewers and a camera, as well as conducting mental arithmetic. Saliva samples were taken half an hour before the test, immediately after, and at ten-minute intervals for another half hour.
The results show that salivary cortisol levels increased significantly in the volunteers that took the stress test in the morning while no such response was observed in those that took the test in the evening. However, the participants’ heart rates, an indicator of the sympathetic nervous system which immediately responds to stress, did not differ according to when the test was taken.
“The body can respond to the morning stress event by activating the HPA axis and sympathetic nervous system, but it needs to respond to evening stress event by activating the sympathetic nervous system only,” said Yamanaka.
“Our study suggests a possible vulnerability to stress in the evening. However, it is important to take into account each individual’s unique biological clock and the time of day when assessing the response to stressors and preventing them.”
How stress affects our relationships
When people experience stress, they typically become withdrawn, distracted, and less affectionate. This can cause tension between partners, especially when the cause of these behaviors isn’t openly discussed. Because stress also tends to magnify a person’s worst traits, their partners may withdraw from them, creating distance within the relationship. This distance can lead to the relationship becoming superficial, increasing conflict, distress, and alienation.
Even couples who communicate well can have their relationship affected by stress. They may experience a deterioration in their communication when times become particularly stressful and may begin to believe that they have an issue with communication when the true cause is simply stress. The same can happen for affectionate couples who may experience reduced affection in their relationship.
The most difficult part of the effects of stress is that the person experiencing it may not realize it. This may lead to couples trying to solve the wrong problem while stress continues to affect their relationship.
Get help managing stress with couples counseling services in Newport Beach, CA
As you can see, stress can severely impact a relationship, but knowing that we may be more vulnerable to stress in the evenings can help us be aware of it. However, knowing this may not be enough, and sometimes you may need some extra help to deal with the effects of stress. Couples counseling services may be able to help you.
Jennifer De Francisco, MPA, MSW, LCSW, is a couples therapist in Newport Beach for couples at any stage in their relationship. Her approach provides a safe environment to openly and honestly share thoughts and emotions. Through developing a positive, therapeutic relationship, you and your partner can interpret what is going on, both in your life and in the session, creating a better awareness within your relationship. Contact Jennifer De Francisco by calling (949) 251-8797 or make an appointment online.