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Research has shown that emotions can have an effect on health, but might how we express those emotions be tied to specific physical symptoms?

This study

Participants in the study included 156 middle-aged and older married couples. Over a 20-year period, they took part in periodic assessments of their emotional reactions to interactions with their spouse — reactions that did and did not involve conflict.

During that time, 45 to 65 percent of the men and 60 to 76 percent of the women experienced cardiovascular symptoms, such as high blood pressure, chest pains or other heart problems. Also, 15 to 29 percent of the men and 30 to 36 percent of the women had musculoskeletal symptoms, such as back pain, stiffness in muscles or joints or severe leg or arm pain. People who consistently expressed anger during interactions with their spouse were more likely to have cardiovascular problems than were those who did not get angry. Those whose behavior during the interactions was described as stonewalling — meaning they suppressed their emotions — were more likely than the others to have musculoskeletal problems.

In both cases, the effect was stronger among men than women. The health problems did not develop immediately; rather, they increased over time. None of the other emotions expressed during the interactions, such as fear or sadness, were tied to either cardiovascular or musculoskeletal symptoms.

Who may be affected

Married couples, which number about 60 million in the United States.

Caveats

Health data came from the participants’ responses on questionnaires. The study authors noted that the findings came from “a thin slice of social behavior” and may not “accurately capture the emotional life of the couple.” Most participants were white.

Find this study

May 23 online issue of Emotion (apa.org/pubs/journals/emo); click on “View Online First Publication,” then click on “View article list”).

Learn more

Information on how emotions may affect health can be found at familydoctor.org (search for “emotions”) and newsinhealth.nih.gov (search for “positive emotions”).

The research described in Quick Study comes from credible, peer-reviewed journals.