We all encounter stressors in life, but some people handle stress better than others. One person may come undone emotionally at the slightest provocation, whereas another seems able to handle even a major stressor with grace and control. Many personal factors play a role in our susceptibility to stress—and one of those is the amount of affection we give and receive.
Affectionate people react to stressful situations differently than non-affectionate people. In a 2010 study, participants kept diaries in which they reported on all of their affectionate exchanges with others for a week. They also completed a measure of their typical levels of affectionate communication, both given and received. In the study, the diary report was termed “state affection,” as it reflected the amount of affection exchanged recently, and the other measure was termed “trait affection,” as it indexed the amount of affection exchanged typically (not within a given time frame).
After completing these measures, the participants reported to a laboratory where they went through a 50-minute procedure designed to elevate their stress. The procedure included a number of stressful activities, such as having to solve challenging math problems while under duress. During the procedure, participants gave blood samples for measurement of the pituitary hormone oxytocin, which has been shown in other studies to have calming, pain-reducing effects.
Although all participants experienced stress as a result of the procedure, their affection levels predicted how their oxytocin responded. Specifically, the more affectionate the participants were, the more their oxytocin levels increased in response to the stressful activities. This was true for both state affection and trait affection.
In other words, highly affectionate people experienced a boost of oxytocin to provide calming, pain-relieving sensations that helped them deal with the stressful situation. Non-affectionate people didn’t have that advantage (at least not to the same degree). Being a highly affectionate person, therefore, serves as a buffer against stressors—it doesn’t mean you don’t experience stress, but it helps you deal with the stress more effectively.
Floyd, K., Pauley, P. M., & Hesse, C. (2010). State and trait affectionate communication buffer adults’ stress reactions. Communication Monographs, 77, 618-636.