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Did you know that conflicts between your friends and family can cause you stress, even if you are not directly involved?

February 2019

There is already extensive research showing the harmful effects of strained or even conflicted social relationships on mental and physical health. Positive relationships in turn protect against mental illness, also because they reduce perceived stress. So far, it has hardly been investigated to what extent negative relationships have an effect on uninvolved third parties. An example is when a (third) person herself has good relationships with two family members while they are arguing with one another.
A forthcoming study by ISS researcher Lea Ellwardt and her colleagues from the US and the Netherlands investigated the question as to whether people suffer from stress when they observe conflicts between their social contacts – even if they themselves have no conflicts with them. For this purpose, the researchers analyzed longitudinal data from Chicago (CHASRS). At annual intervals, the study participants were asked five times about their social contacts and their stress levels. They were also able to indicate whether their contacts get along with one another or not.
The analysis showed a light tendency for participants to report lower stress when their social contacts got along well, meaning relationships were positive. These results show that not only directly involved individuals, but also surrounding relatives or acquaintances potentially suffer from interpersonal tensions, or benefit from their positive relationships. Thus, a harmonious immediate social environment can provide a protective effect against stress and thereby ultimately yield benefits for mental health.