Anxiety about close relationships can affect your health, new research shows
When migrants suddenly find themselves in an unfamiliar socio-cultural context, some settle in better than others — and there are health consequences.
A new Concordia study found that people experiencing this early acculturation period have more systemic inflammation in their bodies if they are prone to anxiety about close interpersonal relationships.
That matters because systemic inflammation is associated with increased risk for cardiovascular disease and other aging-related disorders over time. The more insecure a person is about friendships and close relationships, the more likely they are to suffer from systemic inflammation.
International students on board
“We found an ideal population to study right here who experience rapid changes in social functioning: international students,” says Jean-Philippe Gouin, associate professor of psychology in the Faculty of Arts and Science. He co-authored the study in Attachment & Human Development with PhD student Sasha MacNeil.
“The early acculturation period that migrants experience when they move to a new country provides a unique context to examine the link between personal attachment style and health outcomes.”
Attachment style — defined as the internalized representations of the availability and responsiveness of others as well as the worthiness of the self in relation to others — shapes the types and quality of social relationships that people form and maintain.
“We discovered that attachment anxiety, the tendency to be fearful about rejection in close relationships, is related to a biomarker for systemic inflammation called C-reactive protein (CRP),” explains Gouin, a clinical psychologist who holds a Canada Research Chair in Chronic Stress and Health.
“Increased CRP levels in the blood have been associated with poorer health and increased risk for cardiovascular disease even among initially healthy people. Young students are fine, but over decades, prolonged elevated CRP could have negative health consequences.”
The first five months
Gouin’s study followed 58 international students who were studying at a Montreal university.
They were recruited within the first three weeks of their arrival in Montreal during the fall term. Students completed a questionnaire to determine their attachment style and gave a blood sample to monitor CRP levels.
The students returned to provide blood samples two months later, with another follow-up visit in their fifth month after arriving in Canada.
The questionnaire included the Adult Attachment Scale — an 18-item scale that assesses someone’s comfort with closeness, intimacy and fear of being abandoned. It looks at two subsets of attachment insecurity: attachment anxiety and attachment avoidance.
When to intervene
During this early acculturation period, these new migrants had to form new friendships and integrate into social networks. Some were better than others at doing so.
“The results indicate that people with higher attachment anxiety had a significant increase in systemic inflammation, indicated by a rise in CRP. Those with low attachment anxiety did not show a change in systemic inflammation during this early acculturation period,” says Gouin.
“With this knowledge, we can now start to look for the key intervention period to improve people’s integration as well as their health. For the world’s increasing number of refugees and displaced people, we can look at how and when to combat isolation and step in with more support.”
Gouin’s next study will focus on migrant couples and how the immigration experience impacts their relationships.