Dreaded Conflicts?

Social Sciences3 MIN READ

Positive thinking about stress and conflict can improve mental health and relationships

By Kardelen Koldas ’15
August 17, 2021

Recall your most recent disagreement, maybe with a friend, family member, or partner. How do you feel it affected your relationship?

If you answered “negatively,” switch your thinking.

Seeing stress and conflicts in our relationships as productive can potentially improve our well-being, according to a new paper by Nathan Huebschmann ’19 and Associate Professor of Psychology Erin Sheets.

The study, part of psychology major Huebschmann’s honors thesis, looked at Colby students’ perception of stress and conflict in their friend, familial, and romantic relationships. It set out to examine whether participants’ views impacted their relationship quality and emotional health—a link not previously explored.

“Prior research has focused on a broader stress mindset in terms of how stress often comes up in our work or maybe academic environments,” explained Sheets, a clinical psychologist whose research focuses on stress and depression among emerging adults, including college students.

Earlier studies, like the duo’s previous paper, documented that seeing stress in a positive light leads to better outcomes and reduces anxiety and depression when faced with high levels of stress. “We wanted to see if those findings extended into relationships, because we know relationships are so central to our emotional health,” she said, crediting Huebschmann for the second study’s direction.

Collecting data on Mayflower Hill, the researchers used a series of psychological measures to evaluate 120 Colby students’ friend and familial relationships. They assessed three factors: views on stress and conflict; how supported people feel within their relationships as a measure of relationship quality; and emotional health by looking at their loneliness, stress, depression, and anxiety levels. For those in a long-term relationship (more than 40 percent), the measures extended into romantic relationships, too.

The results? Some important life lessons.

“To the best of our abilities, if we can try to adopt the mindset that stress and conflict within our relationships is not necessarily a bad thing, we might be doing ourselves some good.”

Nathan Huebschmann ’19

For all these relationship types, the analysis showed that participants’ beliefs about the destructive nature of conflict were associated with their relationship quality. People who viewed conflict as less destructive felt more support within their relationships, reported more quality in their romantic relationships, and experienced fewer negative interactions.

But for participants who thought that conflict was more destructive, their relationships and mental health, especially regarding depression, suffered. It turned out that for all types of relationships, lower relationship quality predicted greater depressive symptoms for those believing stress and conflict have negative impacts than those with less destructive beliefs about conflict.

“Negative attitudes toward or apprehension about conflict can potentially do unnecessary harm to relationships and amplify the negative effects of interpersonal stress,” said Huebschmann, a former clinical research coordinator at the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Spaulding Rehabilitation Network and Massachusetts General.

As he heads to medical school this August, Huebschmann keeps this takeaway in the back of his mind.

“To the best of our abilities, if we can try to adopt the mindset that stress and conflict within our relationships is not necessarily a bad thing, we might be doing ourselves some good.”

Illustration by Stuart Kinlough / Ikon Images