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Conflicted feelings may be health risk

Y., U. study finds love-hate mix hard on blood pressure

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People tend to avoid folks they dislike. But it may be harder to stay away from those about whom you harbor mixed feelings — and those conflicted relationships seem to have the most negative impact on blood pressure and possibly overall health, according to a Brigham Young University researcher.

How we relate to other people has an unquestioned impact on health. But exactly what that impact is is still a matter of speculation. And that's the question that Julianne Holt-Lunstad, assistant professor of psychology at BYU, and colleagues at the University of Utah set out to answer. Their study is being published today in the American Psychological Association's Journal, Health Psychology.

They found that blood pressure goes higher when you're dealing with people about whom you have both positive and negative feelings than with those you either like or dislike wholeheartedly. And blood pressure is an important factor in cardiovascular health.

"In terms of significance, cardiovascular disease is the No. 1 cause of death for both men and women," Holt-Lunstad said. "Blood pressure is a predictor of cardiovascular outcomes. And we also know from prior research that social relationships have an impact on all causes of death. For instance, people with larger social networks live longer than those who are more socially isolated. So we wanted to take a more sophisticated look at relationships and their impact on health; but rather than looking at the numbers, we are looking at quality of relationships."

The researchers had 49 men and 54 women, ages 18 to 46, wear hidden blood pressure monitors on three different days: two work days and a weekend. About five minutes into each conversation, they triggered the device, which recorded their blood pressure. As soon as they could, they filled out diaries that indicated whom they'd talked to and the basics of their relationship, as well as whether the conversation was positive or negative.

Overwhelmingly, the most stressful relationships are those that are ambivalent, said Holt-Lunstad, who defined ambivalent relationships as those involving people for whom you have "highly positive feelings and some degree of negativity." Like that dear friend who's highly competitive or the mother you adore who pries or the pal who's not reliable.

They found that blood pressure was pretty consistently lower in interactions with immediate family members and spouses. (They're planning a follow-up study to see how the ups and downs in a marital relationship affect blood pressure.)

At this stage, Holt-Lunstad said, it's interesting. But researchers are in the early stages of understanding it.

She said that when you seek support in times of stress, you might want to be strategic in your choices, not increasing your stress by going to someone with whom you never agree in that kind of situation, for instance.

And she pointed out that ambivalent relationships are both interesting and stressful in that you can exit more easily from bad relationships than from those that are a mixture of good and bad feelings.

Co-authors on the study are Bert N. Uchino, Timothy W. Smith, Chrisana B. Cerny and Jill B. Nealey-Moore, all of the Department of Psychology and Health Psychology Program at the U.

E-MAIL: lois@desnews.com