Study: The impact of physical proximity and attachment working models on cardiovascular reactivity: Comparing mental activation

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The impact of physical proximity and attachment working models on cardiovascular reactivity: Comparing mental activation and romantic partner presence


Abstract

Close relationships, especially high‐quality romantic relationships, are consistently associated with positive physical health outcomes. Attenuated cardiovascular reactivity is one physiological mechanism implicated in explaining these effects. Drawing on attachment and social baseline theories, this experimental study evaluated two potential affiliative cues as mechanisms through which romantic relationships may attenuate cardiovascular reactivity to a laboratory‐based stressor. Prior to a cold pressor task, 102 participants were randomly assigned to either have their partner physically present, call upon a mental representation of their partner, or think about their day during the stressor. Consistent with our preregistered hypotheses, participants in both the partner present and mental activation conditions had significantly lower blood pressure (BP) reactivity during the cold pressor task compared to control participants for both systolic (d = −0.54) and diastolic BP (d = −0.53), but no significant differences emerged for heart rate or heart rate variability. Although participants in the partner present and mental activation conditions had similar BP reactivity to the cold pressor task, those in the partner present condition reported significantly less pain as a result of the task. The difference in BP reactivity by condition was moderated—BP reactivity was greater for people with lower self‐reported relationship satisfaction. The results suggest that accessing the mental representation of a romantic partner and a partner’s presence each buffer against exaggerated acute stress responses to a similar degree. (emphasis provided)