The next time you’re in a high-stress situation ― running to catch a flight, for instance, or preparing minutes before a big meeting with your boss ― take a deep breath and think of bae. It just might help bring down your stress levels.
According to a new study out of the University of Arizona, visualizing your significant other may be just as helpful as having them physically present when it comes to managing your body’s cardiovascular response to stress.
For the study, published in the journal Psychophysiology, 102 participants who were in relationships were asked to complete a stressful ― and vaguely “Titanic”-esque ― uncomfortable task: submerging a foot into 3 inches of ice-cold water for four minutes.
“It was 100 percent safe, just somewhat unpleasant depending on people’s cold tolerance,” lead researcher and UA psychology doctoral student Kyle Bourassa told HuffPost. (Bourassa’s experiments may be cold, but his heart is not.)
Prior to the dunk, the participants were randomly divided into three groups: In the first group, each person’s significant other sat silently in the room during the experiment. The second group was told to think about their romantic partner as a source of support during the task, but the S.O. wasn’t physically present. The third group, the control group in this case, was instructed to think about their day during the experiment (they also did not have partners in the room).
Bourassa and his team measured the participants’ blood pressure, heart rate and heart rate variability before, during and after the experiment.
They found that those who had their S.O. present (group one) had a lower blood pressure response to the stress of the cold water than the control group participants who were told to think about their day.
But those who simply thought of their partner (group two) had a blood pressure response that was comparable to group one.
In other words, when it comes to calming yourself down at the height of a stressful moment, simply conjuring a mental image of your S.O. is just as effective as having them there at your side. (Heart rate and heart rate variability did not vary among the groups.)
“The research suggests that during times of stress, drawing on the mental image of your romantic partner as a psychological resource might be beneficial in terms of blood pressure responses,” Bourassa said.
“Prior research found such thinking can beneficial psychologically, but this extends this work to suggest that it has physical health benefits as well,” he explained.
Just think of your partner’s pretty face as your own personal, free subscription to Headspace.
Is there an alternative for single people?
We know what single readers are thinking right about now: This sounds like a perfectly lovely, science-backed self-soothing technique for those in relationships, but what about the rest of us? As Bourassa pointed out, thinking of practically anyone we feel affection for is a time-tested technique to combat stress.
Take, for example, the loving-kindness meditation many people practice: At some point in the meditation, you’re instructed to focus on loved ones in your life, whether it’s a spouse, a child, a parent, a best friend ― or heck, even your family dog.
Visualizing them, even if just for a minute or so, could be just the ticket to enduring your next stressful moment. Or at least your next cold shower.