As much as society likes to push the narrative that being coupled up is the "best" way to be, being in a relationship isn't easy. It's when things become too much and go too long without resolution that relationship stress can cause health issues — and more than a few of them. If stress is toxic to our health, compound that with stress that stems from our relationship, something that's supposed to be a source of support and happiness, and it can be a devastating situation for the mind and body.
"Relational stress adds to one’s allostatic load, which is the negative outcome of long standing exposure to chronic stress and the body’s reaction to it in the form of endocrinal or neural responses," Dr. Nagma V. Clark, PhD, a couples and sex therapist, tells Bustle. "Chronic stress and a high allostatic load increases the inflammatory response in one’s body leading to a host of physical issues and ailments."
Not only can relationship stress create physical and mental issues, but it can even intensify the issues we already have.
"Many health problems have been found to be related to or exacerbated by stress," Dr. Rachel Needle, PsyD, a licensed psychologist and co-director of Modern Sex Therapy Institutes, tells Bustle. "Relationships take work and at times can be tough."
In general, according to Dr. Needle, relationship conflict and distress are associated with poor health. Something that needs to be taken very seriously and not ignored. Here are seven health issues that can stem from relationship stress.
Although it should come as no surprise that any type of stress would have a negative effect on one's heart, studies have confirmed it. Once such study by a team of epidemiologists at University College London found that people in relationships where arguments and conflicts contribute to relational stress have a 34% greater risk of heart attacks, as well as stress-induced chest pains.
"People dealing with relational stress tend to have a higher rate of cardiovascular issues," Dr. Clark says. "Examples of such ailments are hypertension, diabetes, insulin resistance, and heart disease."
If you have ever endured a break-up, you may have felt it in your stomach — as well as in your heart. That twisting and turning that can feel somewhere between nausea and like someone is stabbing you with a dull knife are signs that your stress levels are too high. According to Dr. Clark, gastroenterological issues can arise as a result of relationship stress, including stomach ulcers and digestion.
“Often times, anxiety can be seen in gastric-intestinal issues — increased anxiety levels can contribute to diarrhea, constipation, and bloating,” Alex Grundleger, PhD, New York City-based psychologist, tells Bustle.
While Pepcid AC might seem like a quick fix, in the long-term those stomach acids can take over and do a number. No one wants acid reflex or an ulcer because of their relationship.
3. Emotional Issues
Stress can really take our emotions for a ride. We're up, we're down, we're throwing plates at the wall, then we're smiling again. It can be a scary state to be in when our emotions seem to have a mind of their own and we can't get them under control.
"Unhealthy or strained relationships can lead to anger, sadness, confusion, and unhappiness," Dr. Needle says.
Such up and downs can contribute to emotional exhaustion. If your relationship is already causing you stress and you toss in emotional exhaustion, you're just making your way further and further down the rabbit hole.
4. Sleep Issues
According to Dr. Clark, relationship stress can lead to sleep issues, specifically insomnia. Long-term insomnia can be debilitating, resulting in lack of energy, mood swings, and can even make the person who has it obsessed with their inability to sleep which makes sleep even harder to attain.
Stress about not being able to sleep on top of relational stress is basically the perfect ingredients for a layered cake no one wants to eat.
5. Skin Problems
As if the internal health issues that come with relationship stress weren't enough, Dr. Clarks says that skin issues, like eczema, can also pop up. Also known as atopic dermatitis, the Mayo Clinic describes eczema as a "condition that makes your skin red and itchy." It can also result in red or brown patches, as well as scaly bumps.
"Skin and anxiety are inextricably linked," Dr. Richard Torbeck, a board-certified dermatologist with Advanced Dermatology PC, tells Bustle. "The reason has to do a lot with how we deal with stress and anxiety."
Naturally, if you're not dealing with your anxiety and stress, it's going to make itself known in ways you'd rather it not.
6. Weakened Immune System
With all the physical ailments that relationship stress can bring on, it's only a matter of time before your ability to fight off things like a cold becomes difficult.
"Relationship stress can ... gradually weaken one’s immune system," Dr. Clark says.
A weakened immune system is due to how the body reacts to that stress brought on by your relationship. "Stress causes production of hormones known as cortisol, which can suppress the immune system," Dr. Tania Elliott, a board-certified allergist and immunologist at NYU Langone Health, tells Bustle.
Lack of sleep, too, can give cortisol a place to grow and flourish, which basically throws fuel on the fire of an already weakened immune system.
7. Mental Health
If relationship stress can have such detrimental effects on the physical body, just imagine what it can do to your brain. A healthy and happy mind needs a healthy and happy body in which to live.
"In addition to the physical effects of relational stress, people who are in unhappy relationships also experience a host of mental health issues as well," Dr. Clark says. "Depression and anxiety as a result of the relationship not working is very common."
These mental issues can be even worse for those whose past relationships were less than stellar.
"People who have been betrayed in relationships experience symptoms similar to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)," Dr. Clark says. "[This comes] in the form of flashbacks, nightmares, hypervigilance, and emotional irritability."
While all of these health issues can be the result of relationship stress, they don't have to be. How? By getting your relational stress under control. You can do that by learning how to effectively communicate with the help of a couples therapist.
According to Dr. Clark, resolution of relational stress can get you back on track.
"I have had clients report a decrease in overall stress levels and an improvement in their health profile in the form of improved blood pressure, clearing of skin or remission of gastrointestinal symptoms," Dr. Clark says. "They also report being less depressed or anxious and an overall feeling of emotional well-being."
As Dr. Clark points out, people in healthy relationships where both partners are happy not only avoid a whole laundry list of physical and mental ailments, but they live longer than those who are bogged down in a relationship that only causes them suffering.
If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.