If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s the importance of social ties and human connections. Not only do they improve your emotional well-being, but they can bring physical benefits. However, while positive relationships can boost health, the opposite is often true when it comes to problematic relationships. Chronic emotional stress may put you at higher risk for a number of health problems and of major concern, affecting YOUR HEART.

Study reports Higher Risk of Heart Attacks

A study published March 2, 2021, in the Journal of the American Heart Association, found that “women who reported having high levels of social strain were more likely to have a heart attack or die of cardiovascular disease during nearly 15 years of follow-up than women who did not.”

Another 2019 study, published by the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, found that women who reported high levels of social stress had lower bone density six years later. The authors speculated that stress may harm bone health because stress raises blood cortisol levels, which may be linked to bone thinning.

Defining a difficult relationship

A stress-inducing relationship can be one with a partner, a family member, a friend or a professional colleague. People may find themselves at odds with others for many reasons. The pandemic and overall burnout experienced by frontline workers that has occurred in recent months may be exacerbating factors for some. Relationship stress is often particularly challenging for people who are in a role as caretaker for a child, ailing adult relative or partner.

Identifying a toxic trend

While your relationships with others may seem like they are outside of your control, there are things you can do to take them in a more positive direction. The first step is identifying a problematic dynamic. A trying relationship typically comes with some warning signs. These include:

• feeling burned out or depleted after interactions

• having negative thoughts about the relationship

• feeling like the relationship is imbalanced — that one person gives or takes more than the other

• feeling that you are not valued or respected by the other person.

Look at the patterns of the relationship over time. Has it been more take than give?

Is it stressful? “If you recognise those signs in yourself, it’s a red flag to take a closer look,” says Dr Jennifer Gatchel, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.


Remember the acronym HALT. When you are upset about something, first ask yourself if you are hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. If so, “halt” in order to first address those needs, and then revisit the problem.

Tips for Heart-Healthy relationships

“Having nurturing relationships is protective for our heart health and overall brain health,” says Gatchel. Do your part to help form healthy relationships with others by practicing some good habits:

1. Be an empathetic listener.

Practice paying close attention when someone is speaking to you, and take the time to understand what the person is saying. “This can often be done by reflecting back some of their statements to them, to reinforce that you have gotten the point and that they are being heard,” says Gatchel.

2. Share the spotlight.

When someone is talking to you about a problem, keep the focus on them; avoid turning it into a discussion about an issue that you might be facing.

3. Stay calm.

If you can, keep calm during discussions to ensure that they are constructive rather than destructive. If you aren’t able to stay calm in the moment, step back and ask to revisit the conversation later when you are in a better place.