The formation of interpersonal bonds is critical to the maintenance of a healthy relationship. In romantic relationships, bonds are formed through a series of emotional events when people first fall in love. Although there is little research exploring exactly how autonomic reactivity affects emotional states in relationships, existing evidence has demonstrated a link. “Autonomic reactivity and emotion regulation play an important role in the partners’ communication within a romantic relationship and were found to predict marital dissatisfaction and even divorce,” said Inna Schneiderman of the Gonda Multidisciplinary Brain Research Center at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, and lead author of a study examining how autonomic reactivity affects emotions in new lovers versus single people. One way to measure the level of autonomic reactivity and vagal regulation is to gauge Respiratory Sinus Arrhythmia (RSA). Therefore, for their study, Schneiderman and colleagues from the Bar-Ilan University measured the RSA of 55 people who had recently fallen in love and 57 single people after they watched two positive films, two negative films and two films that were emotionally neutral.
Schneiderman found that autonomic processing was strikingly different in the single participants than it was in the new lovers, especially with respect to the negative films. “Whereas singles decreased their RSA response during the negative films, indicating physiological stress, such decrease was not observed among new lovers,” said Schneiderman. “Such attenuation of the physiological stress response may indicate that love and attachment provide a buffer against the experience of stress.” Lower levels of RSA have been shown to be linked to negative psychological states, such as anxiety and depression. In the study, Schneiderman found this to be the case with the single participants. “Emotional distress, indexed by depressive and anxiety symptoms, was associated with lower baseline RSA,” Schneiderman said. Although further research is needed, Schneiderman believes that autonomic reactivity directly influences the bond formation of new lovers and when taxed, can lead to negative psychological consequences. Schneiderman said, “Findings suggest that vagal regulation may be one mechanism through which love and attachment reduce stress and promote well-being and health.”
Schneiderman, Inna, Yael Zilberstein-Kra, James F. Leckman, and Ruth Feldman. “Love Alters Autonomic Reactivity to Emotions.” Emotion 11.6 (2011): 1314-321. Print.
© Copyright 2011 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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