Stress affects your relationships


PICKING up from the previous articles, stress is one phenomenon that has crept into our lives and our systems and if we do not stop to study it, monitor its characteristics and impact so as to manage it effectively then it will simply take over and run our lives.

When an individual senses danger through their five senses, the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for detecting danger, triggers the hypothalamus to react by sending nerve and hormone signals to the adrenal glands, which release an abundance of stress hormones.

The role of these hormones is to prepare you to fight or flee from the danger, thereby increasing your chances of survival. At this point, stress is a critical survival mechanism and usually this whole process takes places in a matter of minutes or seconds in some cases.

For example, let us say you are walking down the street in your neighbourhood and suddenly, a racing car appears a few metres away from you. In a split of a second, your eyes and ears send a message to the amygdala, that I am about to be run over by a car, which signals the hypothalamus to react swiftly by triggering the release of cortisol by your adrenalin glands.

Cortisol, your main stress hormone, causes your heart to beat very fast in order to release extra blood to your legs and arms, giving them extra strength to move fast and get out of the way of the vehicle.

Cortisol also tenses your muscles because you cannot move faster than a car with soft muscles. Furthermore cortisol slows down your major systems like digestion, immunity and reasoning so that all attention and energy goes towards saving you from being run over by a car.

Once you jump off the road like a swift long jump champion, the car passes by, you are safe and immediately your system returns to normal, which is called the rest state or homeostasis.

Your heart beat returns to normal; your muscles relax and the immunity and digestive systems resume their operations.

The sad thing about your brain is that it cannot tell the difference between real danger, like a car about to run you over and danger that you create in your mind when you think of how difficult the economy is and how you will fail to fend for your family if the situation remains as is.

Your stress response is also activated by that thought alone, the same way it gets activated by a near car accident.

In other words, failure to manage your thoughts about life puts your body in danger because the continued release of cortisol will wear out your heart, will wear out your muscles, will expose you to infections since your immunity is slowed down and you find yourself struggling with stomach ailments such as acids, constipation and diarrhoea.

Furthermore ability to focus and think clearly and progressively is affected as your brain is continuously in panic mode, focusing on how best to help you fight or flee from the danger, which is not possible because the danger is nonphysical.

Now when the stress response also known as the “fight or flight” mode lingers on for extended periods of time, it begins to affect others in your environment. Here are five of the many ways in whichunmanaged stress can affect your relationships:


When the system is overwhelmed with an unwanted, continued supply of cortisol, effective communication becomes increasingly difficult.

This often leads to misunderstandings and conflicts within relationships since cortisol affects your pre-frontal cortex responsible for reasoning and analysing information.

Furthermore, stress impairs your ability to express ourselves clearly,listen actively, and empathise with your partner, friends or workmates.

This breakdown in communication can create a cycle of miscommunication, frustration, and resentment, eroding the foundation of healthy relationships.

When you find yourself always arguing with others, always fighting with your significant other, always battling to be understood, then it is time to focus on managing your stress.

Active listening, empathy, and expressing emotions in a non-confrontational manner can help foster understanding and strengthen relationships.

Moreover, finding healthy outlets for stress, such as engaging in physical activity or practicing relaxation techniques, can alleviate tension and promote more effective communication.

Emotional distancing

When stressed out, individuals often find other people very annoying, causing them to withdraw or shutting off and becoming emotionally distant from their partners and even children.

This is mainly because the impact of the stress response can consume one's thoughts and emotions, leaving little capacity for emotional connection with loved ones.

 Emotional distancing can strain relationships and make partners feel disconnected, unimportant, or unloved. Before concluding that your partner is cheating or has lost love for you, it is important to check if they are not battling with stress.

Normalise stress discussions in your homes and how it affects human interactions. Be quick to offer support instead of blaming and criticising your partner.

Demonstrating care and empathy can help create a safe space for individuals to share their feelings. Engage in activities that promote connection, such as spending quality time together or engaging in shared hobbies.

Lack of intimacy

Emotional withdrawal often leads to physical distancing. Increased levels of cortisol can decrease libido and sexual satisfaction - remember that your brain is focusing on survival, so pleasure is out of the picture.

Because your body organs and systems are working overtime during the fight or flight response, stress can cause fatigue, anxiety, and tension hence impairing one's ability to fully engage in intimate moments.

Recognising and addressing the impact of stress on intimacy is essential.

Couples can explore alternative ways of staying connected, such as engaging in non-sexual physical touch, expressing affection, and fostering emotional intimacy.

Reduced quality time

If you are like me and one of your love languages is quality time, then stress is going to mess up with your ability to connect, give and receive love.

In most cases, people affected by stress do not even know what is happening in their bodies but they just feel that something is amiss and the reaction is ‘I must do something to numb the noise and get rid of the nagging discomfort so that I can function normally again’.

As a result, many people, particularly men find themselves preoccupied and addicted to work or other activities hence neglecting the time and effort required to nurture their relationships.

When partners feel neglected or unimportant, resentment kicks in causing further strain in the relationship.

Prioritising quality time, even during stressful periods, is vital.

Engaging in activities together, setting aside dedicated time for connection, and practicing self-care and stress management can help maintain healthy relationships in the face of stress.

Increased conflict

Stress can be a catalyst for increased conflict in families and in the place of work. When individuals are stressed, they are more likely to experience heightened emotions, reduced patience, and diminished problem-solving abilities.

This combination can lead to frequent arguments, unnecessary confrontations, and a general need to be defensive and unaccommodating.

When you realise that conflict is increasing in your home or workplace, fighting back and ‘showing who the boss is’ will only make things is worse.

It is important to apply emotional intelligence and practice conflict resolution strategies. This includes actively identifying and acknowledging triggers, seeking compromise, and finding mutually beneficial solutions.

In all of the above scenarios, the most important weapon to fight stress is awareness! Knowing what your real enemy is will give you the ammunition and strategies to subdue.

 Stress is real and it is rife amongst us all. Take time to learn more about stress, how it affects you, how it impacts others around you and most importantly, how to invest in tools and remedies for dealing effectively with stress. Learn to control stress before it controls you!

  • Mhaka is a self-development coach and wellness consultant, who focuses on mental health awareness and mind fitness training. She is the executive director of BeMindFit, an author and a speaker. These weekly New Horizon articles, published in the Zimbabwe Independent, are coordinated by Lovemore Kadenge, an independent consultant, managing consultant of Zawale Consultants (Pvt) Ltd, past president of the Zimbabwe Economics Society and past president of the Chartered Governance & Accountancy Institute in Zimbabwe (CGI Zimbabwe). — [email protected] or mobile: +263 772 382 852.

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