Our bodies have multiple systems that function together in an exquisite dance to keep us healthy in an ever changing environment.
-Stephen WB Mitchell, Ph.D-
Living in the midst of a global pandemic is stressful and stress takes a physiological toll on our bodies and our couple relationship. Our bodies have multiple systems that function together in an exquisite dance to keep us healthy in an ever changing environment. This ability to maintain balance by constantly adjusting and changing is referred to as allostasis.
Three crucial systems in this process of allostasis are the endocrine system (controls the production of hormones needed for functions like metabolizing food, body temperature regulation, sleep cycles etc), nervous system (this basically functions as the highway electrical currents travel on throughout the body to communicate messages from the brain to the body and vice versa), and the immune system (this system protects our bodies from foreign pathogens that can make us sick and cause infection).
Each of these systems is constantly reading our external environment and adjusting to the environment to help our bodies remain balanced. In a stressful environment each of these systems responds to mitigate stress. For example the endocrine system releases adrenaline and cortisol into our system to help us get ready for action. The nervous system kicks in our fight, flight, freeze response and shuts down bodily systems not needed for survival (cognitive functioning, metabolizing food etc) and our immune system causes inflammation throughout the body (Inflammation is the immune systems defense against infection. If you have surgery the surgical area will swell [inflammation] to contain the area and fight off infection. In stress your immune system becomes inflamed to fight off infection but there is no physiological infection to fight).
We need these systems to respond in this manner for our own good. However, in prolonged moments of stress these systems can become overloaded (allostatic overload) and this will cause significant deterioration in the body. This is why it is important to find ways to calm and soothe oneself during stress. This allows these systems to return to normal which balances your body.
So, during COVID-19 many of us may be experiencing some level fo allostatic overload. One of the most powerful medicines for stress is a healthy couple relationship. Research has been done on the reciprocal relationship between relationship quality and allostatic load. The results are pretty clear. Couples that have relationships with healthy communication, conflict, and a positive emotional climate are physiologically better off.
You can be the best medicine for your partner’s stress during COVID-19. You know your partner the best. What helps them relax, feel loved, and be in a place of calm and quiet? Do these things, invite them to experience these healthy states and you will be inviting them to a healthier body and life.
Danese, A. & McEwan, B. (2011). Adverse childhood experiences, allostasis, allostatic load, and age-related disease. Physiology & Behavior, 106, 29-39.
Dankoswki, M. & Pias, S. (2007). What’s love got to do with it? Handbook of clinical issues in couple therapy.
Stephen WB Mitchell has his Ph.D in Medical Family Therapy and works as a professor, writer, speaker, storyteller, and a web-based relationship coach. He and his partner Erin Mitchell, MACP see couples together in their web-based practice. They have an online course for couples Create Your Couple Story. They speak and write together on issues of marriage, family, death, life, miscarriage, and the general importance of stories to help us make sense of our lives. You can follow their journey on Instagram @createyourcouplestory and at their YouTube channel Couples Therapy Bites with the Mitchells. Their mission is to guide couples and families into deeper connection and healing through story telling.