By: Karen Bergen B.A. (Hons); RMT; CAT; M.Ed. & Author of “Overcoming SAD: The Happy Hippie Yoga Chick's Guide to Beating Winter Flip-Out”
It’s unanimous! When my gal pals and I get together, we agree that we are indeed back in our places with sunshiny faces. We are where we belong. This was our normal life; before the jobs, the significant others, the dogs, the kids, and the housework walked in.
I have been blessed to have met my best friends in nursery school. We grew up together, went to school, summer camp, and attended a slew of sleepovers. As life would have it, adulthood took over, and limited this precious pleasure. When we spend time together, we feel listened to, included, understood, appreciated and acknowledged. And the best part of it all is that this type of therapy is free, and can take less than an hour to occur.
Social relationships are defined as, “A relationship between living organisms.” Opinions Survey shows that respondents, who reported a high level of life satisfaction, also reported a high level of satisfaction with their personal relationships. Adults who are more socially connected are healthier, deal with stress better and live longer than their more isolated peers.
Generally speaking, there are three broad ways that social ties work to influence health:
1.) Behaviorally speaking, several studies suggest that social ties influence healthy behavior. For example, showed that greater overall involvement with formal (e.g., religious organizations) and informal (e.g., friends and relatives) social ties was associated with more positive health behaviors over a ten-year period.
2.) Psychosocial mechanisms, such as social support speaks to the emotionally sustaining qualities of relationships, for example, a sense that one is loved, cared for, and listened to. Hundreds of studies suggest that social support benefits both mental and physical health by reducing the impact of stress, and by fostering a sense of meaning and purpose in life.
3.) Physiologically, supportive social ties trigger biological effects such as reduced blood pressure, heart rate, and stress hormones. Socially supportive interactions with others benefit the immune, endocrine, and cardiovascular functions and reduce wear and tear on the body due, in part; to chronically overworked physiological systems engaged in stress responses.
An fMRI study showed that feelings of loneliness and social isolation can affect human brain activity as well as people's behavior. The researchers revealed that over time loneliness leads to decreased activation of the ventral striatum, a region of the brain associated with rewards. This area of the brain is activated through primary rewards such as food, and secondary rewards such as money. Social rewards and feelings of love also may stimulate the region.
In contrast, social isolation of otherwise healthy, well-functioning individuals could eventually result in high blood pressure, decreased immune function. Current research suggests that loneliness is comparable to the risks associated with cigarette smoking, drinking alcohol, blood pressure, and obesity.
Brummett and colleagues found that, among adults with coronary artery disease, the socially isolated had a risk of subsequent cardiac death 2.4 times greater than their more socially connected peers!
Poor quality and low quantity of social ties have also been associated with inflammatory biomarkers. In the current issue of the journal Genome Biology, UCLA researchers have identified a distinct pattern of gene expression in immune cells from people who experience chronically high levels of loneliness. The findings suggest that feelings of social isolation are linked to alterations in the activity of genes that drive inflammation, the first response of the immune system. This study provides a molecular framework for understanding why social factors are linked to an increased risk of heart disease, viral infections and cancer.
Another study from UCLA detected similar brain patterns between people who experience the social pain of rejection, to individuals living with physical pain. “Physical pain and social pain are processed in some of the same regions of the brain. Physical pain has two aspects: the sensory experience of pain and the emotional component, in which your brain decides how negative or distressing the pain is. Some research has suggested that severe social rejection, like being dumped, can also be processed in the part of your brain that handles the sensory component of pain.” Dr. Eisenberger also found that giving social support to friends and family activates the same brain areas as being on the receiving end, suggesting that providing support may benefit both parties.
It’s a win-win! Whether talking or listening to your loved ones, being with one another is best. So hold onto your friends and family, and bask in the benefits of your social relationships.
This column is sponsored by Good 'n' Natural in Steinbach.