Is Arguing Unhealthy?
In any situation where you’re stuck indoors with the same people for days on end – when social restrictions are in place like the coronavirus lockdown measures, for instance, or during family holidays such as Christmas – escalating conflicts and tensions can easily erupt into arguments.
Things that annoyed you a little about your partner or family members can soon become major irritations. So it’s no wonder that, even during the strictest part of the lockdown, police advice suggested it was acceptable to move to a friend’s address for several days to allow a cooling-off following arguments at home (i).
Indeed, whatever the situation, arguing is a normal part of life. Some may say it’s healthy to let off steam with a good row every now and then. But constant confrontation with your partner, parents, children, siblings and other people you spend a lot of time with may not be good for your relationships, and may also affect your health.
If you find yourself returning to the same arguments again and again, with neither party willing to hear the other’s point of view, the relationship charity Relate says you may have become stuck in a conflict loop (ii). This isn’t a good thing, says Relate, because it can cause increasing resentment that builds to a point where it’s hard to focus on anything else. But if you only have occasional arguments that don’t spiral out of control, this is normal, and you may have nothing to worry about.
What happens yo your body when you argue?
If you’ve ever really blown your top with someone, you’ll know how it can leave you feeling drained afterwards. So what exactly happens to you when you argue?
Your heart rate increases (iii)
Your blood pressure increases (iv)
Your adrenal glands release the stress hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine (v)
Other things that may happen include the muscles in your head, neck, shoulders and jaw become tense, and you could even damage your vocal chords if you shout too much while you’re arguing.
Arguments and your health
Fighting or arguing constantly with friends and family can often be a sign that all’s not well with your mental wellbeing. But can arguing affect your physical health too?
One study suggests it definitely can, especially if you’re not getting enough sleep (vi). The researchers behind the study, from Ohio State University, found that married couples sleeping for less than seven hours a night experience higher levels of stress-related inflammation after they argue, compared with other couples who argue but are getting enough sleep.
By taking blood tests from 43 couples after they argued, the researchers found levels of inflammation markers called interleukin 6 and TNF alpha were higher in those who were sleep-deprived (the same inflammation marker levels weren’t high before the couples argued). They also note that a brief spike in inflammation levels isn’t anything to worry about. However, if inflammation remains high over time it can lead to a number of long-term health problems, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease.
Bickering and the gut
Further research coming out of Ohio State University suggests constantly fighting couples may be more likely to suffer from leaky gut syndrome (vii). According to the NHS, leaky gut syndrome is a proposed condition some health practitioners claim is the cause of a wide range of long-term conditions including chronic fatigue syndrome and multiple sclerosis (viii).
The theory behind leaky gut syndrome is that substances such as bacteria and toxins leak into the bloodstream from the gut, causing inflammation. The Ohio State researchers suggest that, in some people, marital distress may cause changes in the gut that lead to inflammation and, in the longer term, chronic illnesses. They found male and female participants who argued the most viciously had higher levels of a biomarker for leaky gut called LPS-binding protein in their blood than those who tended to have calmer discussions.
Meanwhile Danish researchers have found the more you argue with the people around you, the higher your risk is of dying from any cause (ix). By following almost 10,000 people for 11 years, they discovered those who said they argued frequently with their partners or children were 50 - 100 per cent more likely to have died within the study period, compared to those who seldom argued.
Those who said they argued a lot with anyone in their social circle – such as friends, relatives and neighbours – were also two to three times more likely to have died. The researchers also noted that men were particularly susceptible to the negative effects of arguing.
Not in front of the children
It’s normal for people bringing up children to argue. But angry discussions between parents may harm children’s mental health, say University of York experts. According to their study, children of divorced parents who witness heated arguments at home may be 30 per cent more likely to develop behavioural or emotional issues than other children (x).
Research elsewhere suggests a difference between boys and girls when it comes to how they are affected when their parents argue, with boys more at risk of developing behavioural problems and girls more at risk of emotional problems (xi).
Are arguments ever a good thing?
On the other hand, having occasional arguments may actually be a good thing. According to the charity Brook, many relationship counsellors agree they’re less worried about couples who say they argue occasionally than those who say they never argue. That’s because in couples who never argue, at least one person may be bottling things up and making themselves unhappy (xii).
Arguing can serve a useful purpose, says Brook, as it usually involves both sides of a couple saying what’s on their mind. Yet according to a survey by Relate, while one in 10 people says they argue with their partner most or all of the time, 50 per cent of couples say they rarely or never argue (xiii).
How to have constructive discussions
It’s not natural to agree with everybody all of the time. And it’s easy to see why a certain amount of differences of opinion may be beneficial to a relationship, as they may help bring about positive changes. The key to ‘healthy’ arguing, however, is to be constructive rather than destructive. And that means having respectful discussions and resolving your differences with consideration and kindness.
This isn’t always easy, especially when you’re feeling emotional. But there are some things you can do that may help you work through disagreements more calmly and constructively:
Take a breath
Jumping straight into an argument in the heat of the moment can often make things worse, so try to take some time to calm down before getting into what may otherwise turn into a heated discussion. Taking some time out may help both parties put things in perspective and see more clearly, and there’s less of a risk that one of you will say something to hurt the other’s feelings.
In fact it’s usually a good idea to pick a suitable time for a constructive discussion. If you have something you want to get off your chest with your partner, try not to launch into it when you’re out with friends at a restaurant, for example. Instead, choose a quiet moment when the two of you can be alone and undisturbed.
Also try to avoid starting a discussion by criticising or condemning the other person. Instead try to be as amicable as possible, and allow them the time they need to reply and express themselves without interrupting them.
If you’ve tried to understand the other person’s point of view but still can’t agree, at least try to respect it. Maybe you’re finding it difficult to understand where they’re coming from? If so, try asking them to explain everything again, or in more detail.
Also try to stop thinking that you must win the argument. Instead, be creative and prepared to compromise. If you refuse to budge in an argument, you’re much more likely to end up losing it. Remember, in any good relationship there’s a lot of give as well as take.
Break the pattern
If you argue with the same person on a regular basis, try to work out if you’re both following a pattern. For instance, do you tend to argue about the same things over and over again? If you do, try breaking the pattern. So for instance, if you have a habit of arguing about the same thing whenever you’re in a certain situation, make an agreement to discuss things at another time or in another place.
Use careful phrasing
Tensions often escalate not because of what you say, but how you say it. Try to talk more about how you feel rather than attacking the other person – in other words, use ‘I’ phrases rather than ‘you’ phrases. For instance, say ‘I feel very anxious when you come home late at night’, instead of ‘How could you come home so late?’ This can make you seem like you’re taking responsibility for your emotions rather than blaming things on the other person. Also try to avoid saying ‘always’ or ‘never’ in an argument.
Find out what’s really bothering you
Sometimes you may get into an argument over something trivial, but the truth is there may a much deeper issue behind your frustration. Perhaps something has happened to upset you and you’re taking it out on someone close to you. Ask yourself what’s really making you feel angry and tell the other person why you’re upset – you never know, they may be able to help.
What not to do
Meanwhile, according to Relate there are several things that can make arguments worse (ii), so try to avoid the following:
If someone starts a discussion with you and you know there’s no way you’re going to agree with them, you may feel your best option is to refuse to talk about it. Relate calls this stonewalling, which is a total withdrawal and refusal to discuss the issue. However, because it leaves the conversation with nowhere to go, the other person will just end up feeling even more frustrated, which could cause further conflict.
If someone starts to criticise you, acting defensive may turn it into an argument that could become much more intense than it needs to be. If you feel you’re going to start defending yourself, instead ask the other person to explain why they’re criticising you or say you need some time to think about what they’ve just said. Either way you’ll buy a bit more time to calm yourself down and see things more objectively.
This involves being negative to such an extent that you start criticising other things or behaviours by the other person, over and above the thing you’re actually arguing about. But all this does is make the other person feel threatened and attacked, and could lead them to become overly defensive.
Using contempt or sarcasm
This can be unproductive, says Relate, and may even make the other person feel humiliated and belittled. Try to avoid sneering or being hostile or aggressive, as it’s highly likely to escalate the argument. Instead, remember that you’re responsible for your behaviour. So instead of trying to humiliate the other person, think about what you could do or say that would allow you to have a more helpful conversation.
Natural ways to relieve stress
If arguing is leaving you feeling frazzled, you may want to try a nutritional supplement to support your body during times of stress. A multivitamin and mineral supplement could be a good place to start, since there’s some evidence that taking one may help you cope more effectively with stressful situations (xiv). And if you’re not eating as healthily as usual, taking a good-quality multivitamin and mineral can also help make sure your body is getting all the essential nutrients it needs
If you’re not sleeping well, a valerian supplement may be useful, since this herb has a history of traditional use for the temporary relief of sleep problems as well as mild anxiety. Studies also confirm it may help if you’re experiencing poor sleep quality (xv).
St John’s wort
Having constant arguments can also affect your mood, so you may want to try a herbal supplement called St John’s wort. This is a popular herbal remedy that has a traditional use for the relief of slightly low mood and mild anxiety. Indeed, there’s evidence it may be more effective than a placebo at treating mild to moderate depression (xvi), with studies suggesting it’s as effective as some popular prescription antidepressants (xvii).
Always check with your GP or pharmacist before taking St John’s wort if you also regularly take other medicines, as it can have an impact on some medicines’ effectiveness.
A herb that’s often used to help with tiredness, fatigue and stress, ashwagandha is associated with the Indian Ayurvedic system of medicine where it is classed as a rejuvenative (rasyana). Natural health practitioners believe ashwagandha supports the body’s resistance to physical and emotional stress. One small-scale study suggests ashwagandha may reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol (xviii), while another found 88 per cent of trial participants felt less anxious after taking it (xix).
Used traditionally throughout Europe for stress relief, rhodiola contains many active compounds, the most notable of which are rosavin and salidroside. Studies suggest it may help reduce anxiety and stress more effectively than a placebo (xx), with researchers elsewhere finding it effective in people with burnout symptoms (xxi). Look for a supplement that guarantees a potent 3% level of rosavins.
Found almost exclusively in green, black, oolong and pekoe tea, theanine is a non-protein amino acid that’s thought to help your brain produce calming alpha waves – which may be useful if you find it difficult to stay calm in certain situations. Studies suggest taking a theanine supplement may help you feel more relaxed without making you drowsy (xxi).
Lavender aromatherapy oil
Lavender essential oil has a long-established tradition of helping you feel more relaxed and to sleep better. One study even suggests lavender oil may be an effective natural way of treating the signs of anxiety (xxii). Another has also found that lavender oil may be more effective for generalised anxiety disorder than a placebo (xxiii). To take advantage of its calming properties, try using some lavender essential oil in an aromatherapy diffuser.
Constant arguments with your partner, family or friends can affect you both physically and mentally. However, this guide offers some simple strategies to help you avoid arguments by making you feel calm in tense circumstances.
In the meantime there’s lots more to discover about a range of physical and mental health issues in our health library.
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Christine Morgan has been a freelance health and wellbeing journalist for almost 20 years, having written for numerous publications including the Daily Mirror, S Magazine, Top Sante, Healthy, Woman & Home, Zest, Allergy, Healthy Times and Pregnancy & Birth; she has also edited several titles such as Women’ Health, Shine’s Real Health & Beauty and All About Health.