Participants with higher levels of anxiety about the marriage produced about 11 percent more cortisol than those with lower anxiety levels. Spouses with higher anxiety levels had between 11 percent and 22 percent lower levels of T cells than those with less anxiety.
Jaremka said the two findings are likely linked, because cortisol can hamper production of T-cells.
The study found a link or association between relationship anxiety and the body's stress and immune response, but cannot prove cause and effect.
While the study did not track whether the highly anxious partners got sick more often, the link is reasonable, Jaremka said, based on other research about the ill effects of chronically high stress hormone levels.
"A lot of the negative consequences of high cortisol are beyond the common flu," she said. Rather, she added, high level have been linked to heart problems, sleep problems, depression and other conditions.
Another expert who also studies attachment styles said the link between attachment anxiety and stress is not new, but the link to immune system function is newer. And it is "not that surprising," said Jeni Burnette, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Richmond, in Virginia.
Until more research is in, Jaremka suggests people who are highly anxious in relationships work on reducing their stress. Reduce stress by yoga or other exercise or meditation, she suggested. That would lower cortisol, presumably, and help their health.
Burnette suggested that highly anxious partners might also try to be more forgiving, and not keep replaying negative events such as arguments. "Some of our work suggests that anxiously attached individuals are less forgiving and tend to respond with more rumination," she said.
The study was supported by an American Cancer Society grant, a Comprehensive Cancer Center at Ohio State fellowship and the U.S. National Institutes of Health.
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