Ripple Effects: How Early Relationships Influence Health

Dr. Evelyn Mercado. Photo courtesy of UMass, Amherst

On Wednesday, November 10, the Psychology Department’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee invited their first outside speaker to campus. Dr. Evelyn Mercado is a professor at UMass Amherst in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. Her talk “Exploring Relationship Behaviors, Emotions, & Biological Processes that Impact Health Across the Lifespan” drew a large crowd of students. This was the first talk Dr. Mercado had given in person in two years, but it was well worth the wait.

Dr. Mercado’s research examines how relationship stress affects our health. Early familial relationships are important for human development as well as the development of future relationships. Biological systems are conditioned to the presence of close partners, either parental or romantic. Separation from these partners leads to increased levels of cortisol, a stress hormone.

Specifically, Dr. Mercado’s research explores the concept of emotional coregulation of physiology and of mood. ,Mercado & Hibel, 2017 defines emotional coregulation as the coordination of affection and behavior between individuals. Dr. Mercado also referenced ,Butler, 2011, a study which examines temporal interpersonal emotion systems. This study found that there is a bidirectional linkage of emotional channels, meaning that the influence of emotions does not merely go from parent to child or from husband to wife, but that both partners in the relationship are affected by the other’s mood. Butler (2011) also found that this linkage occurs across different time frames. It can happen synchronously, meaning at the moment one person is upset, their partner feels upset as well. It can also happen as transmission, meaning that one person gets upset, then later on interacts with their partner, and the feeling transfers at this time. Dr. Mercado is interested in whether this linkage of emotional channels may be driven by individual or contextual characteristics.

In order to explore these possibilities, Dr. Mercado has been focusing on two central questions in her ,Family Relationships, Affective Science, and Minority Health (FAM) Lab at UMass Amherst. Does coregulation vary by context, and is coregulation shaped by culture? In ,Trumbell et al. (2018), Mercado and colleagues looked at how marital conflict spills over and affects parenting behavior. They wanted to explore when coregulation occurs among marital partners, whether this varies based on individual differences, and if parents transmit stress to their infants. The study had couples either discuss positive events in their relationship or discuss conflicts that have occurred. Saliva samples were taken at three points throughout this process to assess cortisol levels. The mothers were then given time to play with their children, after which the children were put through an infant stress test and the mother soothing them. The results of the study found that while the discussion of positive or negative events did not associate with coregulation, the behaviors that resulted from these discussions did differ. Dr. Mercado and colleagues found that moms did transmit their anxiety to their children, and that mothers who had insecure attachment had stronger cortisol alignment with their husbands.

Building upon the results of this study, Dr. Mercado conducted a second study investigating the coregulation of mood among parent-child dyads. This study was centered around the questions of what emotions do families coregulate, and what daily experiences are associated with coregulation? In this study, families were asked to keep a diary for 56 days, recording daily mood measures and context measures. The results showed that for mothers, the positive emotion of vigor was strongly related to parent-child interactions, and the same was true for the negative emotion of hostility. For mother/child coregulation, it was daily conflict episodes that mediated the relationship. For father/child coregulation, it was time spent together that mediated the relationship.

With these two studies providing strong foundational information, Dr. Mercado turned her attention to the impact of coregulation on mental health, and the impact of culture on coregulation. In ,Mercado et al., 2019, 428 families of Mexican heritage were asked to record daily mood, daily relationship quality, family obligation scale, and measures of internalizing symptoms. The results showed that same-day levels of positive mood were related, but that same-day levels of distress were unrelated. Parent/child dyads who report getting along displayed greater coregulation of happiness. Interestingly, coregulation was associated with internalizing symptoms only for 17-year-olds with high depression, suggesting that adolescence and mental health are key factors.

In terms of future directions, Dr. Mercado called our attention to a recent piece done by National Public Radio (NPR), ,“A study links facing discrimination at a young age with future mental health issues.” This article questions how experiences of discrimination affect different health outcomes later in life. It also calls attention to how discrimination experienced by parents spills over to affect child depression. If we can learn about how the experience of discrimination affects the parent-child dynamic, then we can begin to understand and interrupt harmful cycles that last generations.