In this first installment of the Winter/Spring 2015 season of SAGE’s “Relationship Matters” podcast, hosted by Dr. Bjarne Holmes of Champlain College), Dr. Kira Birditt (University of Michigan) discusses how resolving disagreements (or not) affects individuals’ daily stress hormone production.
Briefly, cortisol — popularly referred to as the “stress hormone” — helps regulate our daily sleep-wake cycles and also helps us react appropriately to stressful situations. When the cortisol system is functioning optimally, the hormone peaks about thirty minutes after waking time (to help us become alert for the day) and then generally falls throughout the day, culminating at its lowest point before bedtime. Chronically elevated daily levels of cortisol are generally associated with negative health outcomes.
The research team (also comprised of Michael Nevitt of Univ. of Mich. and David Almeida of Penn. State. Univ.) was interested in how people’s daily cortisol rhythm would be affected by disagreements in their relationships.
What did they find? In general, cortisol levels were higher (indicating more stress) on days when people had a disagreement with their partners. In contrast, those who actively avoided having a disagreement about something showed higher levels of cortisol the following day. Thus, not confronting a conflict head-on may result in a delayed stress response. Although speculative — more research is needed — it could be that dealing with a disagreement, while more stressful at first, is a healthier solution in the long run.
Birditt, K. S., & Nevitt, M. R., & Almeida, D. M. (in press). Daily interpersonal coping strategies: Implications for self-reported well-being and cortisol. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.