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Time to Call it Quits? Being in a Bad Relationship Can Damage Your Immune System

Update Date: Feb 19, 2013 10:03 AM EST

Feeling insecure or anxious about close relationships can make you sick and damage your immune system, according to a new study.

Anxiety about close relationships elevate levels of stress hormones and make the body weaker at fighting off illness, according to researchers.

In the latest study, published in the journal Psychological Science, researchers at Ohio State University asked 85 married couples to complete surveys about their relationships and to provide saliva and blood samples to test levels of key stress hormones and certain immune cells.

Participants also reported general anxiety symptoms as well as their sleep quality.

Researchers focused on testing the health effects of "attachment anxiety" on the couples who had been married for an average of more than 12 years. Researchers explained that people who are on the high end of the attachment anxiety spectrum are extremely concerned about being rejected, constantly seek reassurance that they are loved and are likely to interpret ambiguous events in a relationship as negative.

Researchers were particularly interested in participants considered to be at the high end of the attachment anxiety spectrum. Researchers found that married partners who were more anxiously attached to their partners tend to produce on average 11 percent more of the stress hormone cortisol. Anxiously attached people were also less able to fight off infection, as they had up to 22 percent less T-cells than less anxiously attached partners.

While more women in the study suffered from higher levels of attachment anxiety, the study revealed that the same elevated levels of cortisol and lower T-cells in the men who were anxious.

"Everyone has these types of concerns now and again in their relationships, but a high level of attachment anxiety refers to people who have these worries fairly constantly in most of their relationships," lead author Lisa Jaremka of Ohio State University, said in a university news release.

Jaremka explained that while some scientists believe that attachment anxiety can be traced to infancy, she noted that people who feel anxious could change over time.  Researchers explained that attachment anxiety is considered a phenomenon related to childhood development.  A person learns in childhood whether or not their primary caregivers will respond when they are in distress.  If parents or caregivers are responsive then children learn they can rely on other people.  However, if care is inconsistent or neglectful, children can develop feelings of insecurity that might manifest as attachment anxiety in adulthood, according to researchers.

"It's not necessarily a permanent state of existence," Jaremka explained. "Most research that does exist in this area supports the idea that being in very caring, loving, close relationships might be a catalyst to change from being very anxious to not."

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