Evidence of emotional ‘load sharing’ in close relationships

Date:September 14, 2015

Source:Queen’s University

Summary:Evidence of emotional load sharing between partners in a close relationship has bee uncovered by researchers. Their new study found that a strong relationship with a loved one can help ease stress when placed in difficult situations.

“We wanted to test a new evolutionary theory in psychology called Social Baseline Theory which suggests that humans adapted to be close to other humans,” says Ms. Lougheed. “The idea is that individuals function at a relative deficit when they are farther away from people they trust.”

In their study, Ms. Lougheed and co-authors measured the stress levels of 66 adolescent girls during a spontaneous speech task. Before the speech performance, the participants and their mothers rated the quality of their relationship. During the speeches, researchers tracked the participants’ level of stress via galvanic skin response (measuring the level of skin perspiration). To account for the effect of physical — rather than purely emotional — closeness, the participants’ mothers were instructed either to hold or not hold their daughters’ hand.

The researchers found that physical closeness allowed the participants to manage their stress more efficiently, regardless of how close the mother-daughter pair reported being. However, when physical contact was removed from the equation, only the participants who reported higher relationship quality showed signs of load sharing.

“Our results suggest that we are better equipped to overcome challenging situations when we are closer — either physically or in terms of how we feel in our relationships — to people we trust,” says Ms. Lougheed.

Participants who had reported the lowest level of mother-daughter relationship closeness and lacked physical contact during the task were the least efficient in managing emotional stress.

“We were somewhat surprised to find that mothers’ stress did not vary by physical closeness — after all, it can be stressful for parents to watch their children perform, but being able to offer physical comfort might have lessened the mothers’ stress,” says Ms. Lougheed.

“Thus, emotional load sharing in this context was not a function of the mothers’ stress level, and we expect that it occurred instead through the daughters’ perceptions of how stressful it was to give a speech. That is, higher physical and/or relationship closeness helped the daughters feel like they could overcome the challenging situation.”

The results suggest that physical contact can overcome some difficulties associated with relatively low relationship quality, or that being in a high-quality relationship is helpful for managing emotions in the same way as the physical comfort of a loved one. Lougheed does, however, note that the general level of relationship quality was relatively high in their sample, and that physical contact may function very differently in distressed families. She also cautions against generalizing these results to other partnerships — such as a relationship between romantic partners, platonic friends and other family members — and suggest that more research be done to determine the effect of socioeconomic status and gender, amongst other factors.

The study, “Sharing the burden: the interpersonal regulation of emotional arousal in mother-daughter dyads,” was published in the journal Emotion.

Story Source:

The above post is reprinted from materials provided by Queen’s University. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Journal Reference:

  1. Jessica P. Lougheed, Peter Koval, Tom Hollenstein. Sharing the Burden: The Interpersonal Regulation of Emotional Arousal in Mother−Daughter Dyads.. Emotion, 2015; DOI: 10.1037/emo0000105

Acute Stress Alters Control of Gene Activity: Researchers Examine DNA Methylation

ScienceDaily (Aug. 15, 2012) — Acute stress alters the methylation of the DNA and thus the activity of certain genes. This is reported by researchers at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum together with colleagues from Basel, Trier and London for the first time in the journal Translational Psychiatry. “The results provide evidence how stress could be related to a higher risk of mental or physical illness,” says Prof. Dr. Gunther Meinlschmidt from the Clinic of Psychosomatic Medicine and Psychotherapy at the LWL University Hospital of the RUB. The team looked at gene segments which are relevant to biological stress regulation.

In stressful social situations, the methylation patterns (bright spheres) of the DNA change. (Credit: Illustration: Christoph Unternährer and Christian Horisberger)

Epigenetics — the “second code” — regulates gene activity

Our genetic material, the DNA, provides the construction manual for the proteins that our bodies need. Which proteins a cell produces depends on the cell type and the environment. So-termed epigenetic information determines which genes are read, acting quasi as a biological switch. An example of such a switch is provided by methyl (CH3) groups that attach to specific sections of the DNA and can remain there for a long time — even when the cell divides. Previous studies have shown that stressful experiences and psychological trauma in early life are associated with long-term altered DNA methylation. Whether the DNA methylation also changes after acute psychosocial stress, was, however, previously unknown.

Two genes tested

To clarify this issue, the research group examined two genes in particular: the gene for the oxytocin receptor, i.e. the docking site for the neurotransmitter oxytocin, which has become known as the “trust hormone” or “anti-stress hormone”; and the gene for the nerve growth factor Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), which is mainly responsible for the development and cross-linking of brain cells. The researchers tested 76 people who had to participate in a fictitious job interview and solve arithmetic problems under observation — a proven means for inducing acute stress in an experiment. For the analysis of the DNA methylation, they took blood samples from the subjects before the test as well as ten and ninety minutes afterwards.

DNA methylation changes under acute psychosocial stress

Stress had no effect on the methylation of the BDNF gene. In a section of the oxytocin receptor gene, however, methylation already increased within the first ten minutes of the stressful situation. This suggests that the cells formed less oxytocin receptors. Ninety minutes after the stress test, the methylation dropped below the original level before the test. This suggests that the receptor production was excessively stimulated.

Possible link between stress and disease

Stress increases the risk of physical or mental illness. The stress-related costs in Germany alone amount to many billions of Euros every year. In recent years, there have been indications that epigenetic processes are involved in the development of various chronic diseases such as cancer or depression. “Epigenetic changes may well be an important link between stress and chronic diseases” says Prof. Meinlschmidt, Head of the Research Department of Psychobiology, Psychosomatics and Psychotherapy at the LWL University Hospital. “We hope to identify more complex epigenetic stress patterns in future and thus to be able to determine the associated risk of disease. This could provide information on new approaches to treatment and prevention.” The work originated within the framework of an interdisciplinary research consortium with the University of Trier, the University of Basel and King’s College London. The German Research Foundation and the Swiss National Science Foundation supported the study.

Story Source:

The above story is reprinted from materials provided byRuhr-Universitaet-Bochum. 

Journal Reference:

  1. E Unternaehrer, P Luers, J Mill, E Dempster, A H Meyer, S Staehli, R Lieb, D H Hellhammer, G Meinlschmidt.Dynamic changes in DNA methylation of stress-associated genes (OXTR, BDNF ) after acute psychosocial stressTranslational Psychiatry, 2012; 2 (8): e150 DOI: 10.1038/tp.2012.77

Ruhr-Universitaet-Bochum (2012, August 15). Acute stress alters control of gene activity: Researchers examine DNA methylation.ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 16, 2012, from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/08/120815082709.htm

For Young Birds, Getting Stressed out Can Be a Good Thing

ScienceDaily (Aug. 10, 2012) — Many studies have found that high levels of hormones that are associated with stress are a sign of poor fitness and reduced chance of survival — but recent research on young songbirds found that some elevated hormones can be a good thing, often the difference between life and death.


Stress in birds. New research found that stress in small birds such as this Swainson’s thrush can aid their survival. (Credit: Photo courtesy of Oregon State University)


The new research concluded that elevated levels of glucocorticoid hormones, which are part of the natural response to stress, were related to the movement, feeding, and anti-predator behaviors of juvenile birds.

The findings were made by researchers at Oregon State University with the Swainson’s thrush as an animal model.

There’s only about a one-in-three chance that juveniles of this bird species will survive, the study found, and it appeared to have more to do with their stress hormones than other factors such as vegetative cover or nesting site.

“In these birds, a little stress and elevated stress hormones were associated with greater survival,” said James Rivers, a researcher with the OSU Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society. “The conventional wisdom is that elevated levels of glucocorticoid hormones are bad for survival, but we found just the opposite.”

“Stress is more complex than we think,” he said.

The hormones associated with stress, which include cortisol in humans, can change the behavior and physiology of animals. If stress is too persistent and the hormone levels remain consistently too high, it appears to impede growth. But especially at vulnerable stages where the task is to keep up with the parents, get enough food to grow, or flee a predator, higher levels of stress hormones appear to improve survival chances.

This was one of the first studies of its type done in small songbirds, researchers said. Some previous research had suggested that increased hormone levels can allocate resources away from normal activities and have long-term health impacts.

The research was published in Functional Ecology, a professional journal. It was supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National Science Foundation and other agencies.


Story Source:

The above story is reprinted from materials provided byOregon State University. 

Journal Reference:

  1. James W. Rivers, Andrea L. Liebl, Jennifer C. Owen, Lynn B. Martin, Matthew G. Betts. Baseline corticosterone is positively related to juvenile survival in a migrant passerine birdFunctional Ecology, 2012; DOI:10.1111/j.1365-2435.2012.02025.x

Oregon State University (2012, August 10). For young birds, getting stressed out can be a good thing. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 15, 2012, from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/08/120813092045.htm

Learning: Stressed People Use Different Strategies and Brain Regions

ScienceDaily (Aug. 8, 2012) — Stressed and non-stressed people use different brain regions and different strategies when learning. This has been reported by the cognitive psychologists PD Dr. Lars Schwabe and Professor Oliver Wolf from the Ruhr-Universität Bochum in theJournal of Neuroscience. Non-stressed individuals applied a deliberate learning strategy, while stressed subjects relied more on their gut feeling. “These results demonstrate for the first time that stress has an influence on which of the different memory systems the brain turns on,” said Lars Schwabe.

(Credit: http://www.stressmanagementblog.com/)

The experiment: Stress due to ice-water

The data from 59 subjects were included in the study. Half of the participants had to immerse one hand into ice-cold water for three minutes under video surveillance. This stressed the subjects, as hormone assays showed. The other participants had to immerse one of their hands just in warm water. Then both the stressed and non-stressed individuals completed the so-calledweather prediction task. The subjects looked at playing cards with different symbols and learned to predict which combinations of cards announced rain and which sunshine. Each combination of cards was associated with a certain probability of good or bad weather. People apply differently complex strategies in order to master the task. During the weather prediction task, the researchers recorded the brain activity with MRI.

Two routes to success

Both stressed and non-stressed subjects learned to predict the weather according to the symbols. Non-stressed participants focused on individual symbols and not on combinations of symbols. They consciously pursued a simple strategy. The MRI data showed that they activated a brain region in the medial temporal lobe — the hippocampus, which is important for long-term memory. Stressed subjects, on the other hand, applied a more complex strategy. They made ​​their decisions based on the combination of symbols. They did this, however, subconsciously, i.e. they were not able to formulate their strategy in words. The result of the brain scans was also accordingly: In the case of the stressed volunteers the so-called striatum in the mid-brain was activated — a brain region that is responsible for more unconscious learning. “Stress interferes with conscious, purposeful learning, which is dependent upon the hippocampus,” concluded Lars Schwabe. “So that makes the brain use other resources. In the case of stress, the striatum controls behaviour — which saves the learning achievement.”


Story Source:

The above story is reprinted from materials provided byRuhr-Universitaet-Bochum.

Journal Reference:

  1. L. Schwabe, O. Wolf. Stress modulates the engagement of multiple memory systems in classification learning.Journal of Neuroscience, 2012 DOI:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1484-12.2012

Ruhr-Universitaet-Bochum (2012, August 8). Learning: Stressed people use different strategies and brain regions. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 9, 2012, from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/08/120808081336.htm


Force of Habit: Stress Hormones Switch Off Areas of the Brain for Goal-Directed Behavior

ScienceDaily (July 25, 2012) — Cognition psychologists at the Ruhr-Universität together with colleagues from the University Hospital Bergmannsheil (Prof. Dr. Martin Tegenthoff) have discovered why stressed persons are more likely to lapse back into habits than to behave goal-directed. The team of PD Dr. Lars Schwabe and Prof. Dr. Oliver Wolf from the Institute for Cognitive Neuroscience have mimicked a stress situation in the body using drugs. They then examined the brain activity using functional MRI scanning.


The researchers have now reported in the Journal of Neuroscience that the interaction of the stress hormones hydrocortisone and noradrenaline shut down the activity of brain regions for goal-directed behaviour. The brain regions responsible for habitual behaviour remained unaffected.

Two stress hormones in use

In order to test the different stress hormones, the cognition psychologists used three substances — a placebo, the stress hormone hydrocortisone and yohimbine, which ensures that the stress hormone noradrenaline stays active longer. Part of the volunteers received hydrocortisone alone or just yohimbine, others both substances. A fourth group were administered a placebo. Altogether, the data of 69 volunteers was included in the study.

Goal-directed behaviour and habits investigated in the experiment

In the experiment, all participants — both male and female — learned that they would receive cocoa or orange juice as a reward if they chose certain symbols on the computer. After this learning phase, volunteers were allowed to eat as many oranges or as much chocolate pudding as they liked. “That weakens the value of the reward,” explained Schwabe. “Whoever eats chocolate pudding will lose the attraction to cocoa. Whoever is satiated with oranges, has less appetite for orange juice.” In this context, goal-directed behaviour means: Whoever has previously eaten the chocolate pudding, chooses the symbols leading to cocoa reward less frequently. Whoever is satiated with oranges, selects less frequently the symbols associated with orange juice. Based on previous results, the scientists assumed that only the combination of yohimbine and hydrocortisone attenuates goal-directed behaviour. They have now confirmed this hypothesis.

Combined effect of yohimbine and hydrocortisone

As expected, volunteers who took yohimbine and hydrocortisone did not behave goal-directed but according to habit. In other words, satiation with oranges or chocolate pudding had no effect. Persons who had taken a placebo or only one medication, on the other hand, behaved goal-directed and showed a satiating effect. The brain data revealed: The combination of yohimbine and hydrocortisone reduced the activity in the forebrain — in the so-called orbitofrontal and medial prefrontal cortex. These areas have been already previously associated with goal-directed behaviour. The brain regions which are important for habitual learning, on the other hand, were similarly active for all volunteers.




Journal Reference:

  1. L. Schwabe, M. Tegenthoff, O. Höffken, O.Wolf. Simultaneous glucocorticoid and Noradrenergic activity disrupts the neural basis of goal-directed action in the human brain. Journal of Neuroscience, 2012 DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1304-12.2012


Ruhr-Universitaet-Bochum (2012, July 25). Force of habit: Stress hormones switch off areas of the brain for goal-directed behaviour. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 27, 2012, from http://www.sciencedaily.com­ /releases/2012/07/120725090042.htm