It’s easy to appreciate how stressful traveling can be on the traveler: long drives in rental cars, racing to make flight connections, foraging for something healthier than a miniature bag of pretzels for sustenance and overcoming the ennui of jet lag. However, travel can be just as stressful, if not more so, for the person who remains at home while his or her significant other is out of town.
Stress research reiterates again and again that partnered people experience less morbidity, mortality, and distress than their single counterparts. This is believed to be an effect of the social support, feelings of belonging, and attachment that occur in such a relationship and help the members of the couple deal with day to day challenges and stressors.
One group of researchers wanted to discover what happens to couples when this support is temporarily taken away. They investigated the effect of a short-term separation (such as that brought about by work-related travel) on mood, behavior, and the stress response system in travelers and their home-bound partners before, during and after a 4-7 day separation. In addition, they explored how these responses vary between people with different attachment styles. An attachment style reflects the way an individual reacts in an interpersonal relationship. People with an avoidant attachment style have a fear of intimacy, tend to mistrust others and keep their distance to some degree. People with an anxious attachment style have a fear of abandonment and tend to require a great deal of reassurance from their partners.
The researchers illuminated some interesting results:
Positive mood decreased during the separation and recovered during reunion for both members of the couple, but there was a more dramatic decline for the homebound partner. Female homebound partners actually reported an increase in negative mood during the separation. (This was the only place in the study in which there was a gender difference). Interestingly, longer phone calls -but not number of phone calls, emails, or messages- helped to alleviate some of the decline in positive mood.
Both the partner traveling and the homebound partner experienced more sleeping problems during the separation.
Cortisol is the primary hormone involved in the body’s stress response system, and its secretion is increased under conditions of real or perceived stress. The study showed that homebound partners who had high levels of attachment anxiety had increased cortisol secretion every day that their partner was gone, illustrating that the absence of their partner was a significant stress for them emotionally and physiologically. Individuals with low levels of attachment anxiety did not experience the same increase in cortisol.
The take home message is that travel is stressful, not only for the individuals who are actually heading into the wild blue yonder, but even—and maybe especially—for their partners who are staying behind. If you are already dealing with excessive stress or adrenal fatigue or know that you have some degree of attachment anxiety, recognize that if your partner travels, the time that he or she is away may be a more taxing time for you. Give yourself extra support through rest; stress relief such as yoga or moderate exercise; social and emotional support from friends; participation in enjoyable recreational activities; and the use of supplements which support your stress response system. In addition, give yourself permission to spend a little more time on the phone with your significant other while he or she is away; doing so may have the power to boost your mood and alleviate some stress until they return.
About the author:
Dr. Lise Naugle is an associate of Dr. James L. Wilson. She assists healthcare professionals with clinical assessment and treatment protocols related to adrenal dysfunction and stress, and questions regarding the use of Doctor Wilson’s Original Formulations supplements. With eleven years in private practice and a focus on stress, adrenals, hormonal balance and mind-body connection, she offers both clinical astuteness and a wealth of practical knowledge. Dr. Naugle also maintains updated information about the latest scientific research on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis function, endocrine balance and nutritional support for stress and develops educational materials about stress and health for clinicians and their patients.
Horwitz AV. McLaughlin J, White HR. How the negative and positive aspects of partner relationships affect the mental health of young married people. Journal of Health and Social Behavior. 1998; 39 (124-136).
Verbrugge LM. Marital status and health. Jrnl of marriage and the family. 1979; May (41):267-85.
Diamond LM, Hicks AM, Otter-Henderson KD. Every time you go away: changes in affect, behavior, and physiology associated with travel-related separations from romantic partners. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2008; Aug;95(2):385-403.