What is stress?

Stress is the feeling we get when we are challenged by difficult situations. A small amount of stress can be a good thing because it helps us overcome difficult circumstances, but too much stress can be bad for the health of our bodies, our minds and our relationships.


Learn more about stress on our health topic page.


What causes stress?

Stress occurs when your body launches its “fight or flight” response to a perceived stressor — whether that be a “can we talk” text message or someone trying to mug you. There’s an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, blood flow to the muscles and alertness from an increase in adrenaline and noradrenaline in the blood. This is followed by an increase in blood sugar levels caused by the stress hormone, cortisol, which also affects the brain, immune system and most of the body’s organs. These changes help the body deal with the difficult situation.

Usually, the stress response kicks in to deal with a problem and then goes away, and your body returns to its normal resting state. If the cause of stress is prolonged or repeated, your body’s stress response might not be able to keep up or it might become dysregulated.

When your body’s stress response is prolonged or dysregulated, the changes in your body can be damaging. That’s how stress can contribute to health problems like high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, inflammatory disease, heart attack, stroke, allergies and many others.

Everyone experiences stress differently and is triggered by different stressors including:

  • Major life events such as divorce or death of a loved one
  • Health problems
  • Problems at work or school
  • Financial issues
  • Relationship worries


What your partner could be feeling

Your partner could be feeling fear, worry, anger, irritability and helplessness. Stress is also associated with problems concentrating and poor memory.

Physical symptoms of stress include heart palpitations, headaches, nausea, diarrhea, and muscle aches and pains. Fatigue and trouble sleeping can also be the result of stress.

Stress can lead to depression and anxiety, or can be a consequence of them. Stress can also cause a loss of libido (sex drive).

Your partner might know and acknowledge they’re stressed, or they might not notice that how they feel or how they’re behaving is a sign of stress.


What you could be feeling

Stress doesn’t affect just one partner in a romantic relationship. When your partner is stressed, they communicate this to you through words or actions — whether it’s as clear as saying “I’m really stressed about work” or snapping at you over something insignificant. When you notice their stress, you interpret your stressed partner’s signals and react. Your reaction might be to ignore it, to feel stress because your partner is stressed, or lead you to have a shared response to dealing with the stress. This process called dyadic coping.


What to do about a partner’s stress

Supporting a stressed partner can help them to deal with their difficult situation and help to protect your relationship from the potentially damaging effects of stress.

There are different ways that couples can cope together. Positive dyadic coping includes:

  • Supportive dyadic coping involves providing support (e.g. helping with everyday tasks, giving useful advice, helping to understand or reinterpret the situation, providing empathy, encouragement or solidarity) to the stressed partner
  • Joint dyadic coping involves more-or-less equal effort from both partners (e.g. joint problem-solving, sharing feelings, helping each other remain calm)
  • Delegated dyadic coping is when the other partner takes over responsibility for the stressed partner’s difficult situation to reduce the burden (e.g. by doing some of the work needed to meet a deadline).

Negative forms of dyadic coping include:

  • Hostile dyadic coping is when a partner responds with negative reactions (e.g. ridicule, sarcasm, denigration, disinterest, denial) to their partner’s stress
  • Ambivalent dyadic coping involves a partner responding with positive behaviours in a way that seems unwilling, or as though their help should be unnecessary
  • Superficial dyadic coping involves disengaged or insincere support, like a quick hug or not listening, when a partner is stressed.

Effective dyadic coping comes from an overall positive coping response (i.e. a greater balance of positive than negative forms of dyadic coping), and is helpful to the stressed partner and to the relationship. Recovery for the stressed partner is better, and relationship satisfaction and stability are greater, when dyadic coping is effective.

Like the causes of stress and responses to it, coping strategies can be quite different between individuals. Males tend to favour practical, problem-solving approaches to coping, whereas females have a more emotion-oriented (supportive) approach.

Of course, your own health and wellbeing should be your priority. If your partner’s stress is having a negative effect on you, then you might need to seek some help for yourself. You can’t always “save” your partner or “fix” their problems.

If your partner is unable to cope with their stress, encourage and assist them to seek help.


Learn more about stress on our health topic page.

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