As promised, we’re going to talk about what protects us from stress and improves our physical and mental health. This topic is especially interesting to me, and I hope it will be to you, too!
I’m sure all of us have been in a scenario similar to the following: You’re at home sitting on your couch after a long day. You’re in a bit of a bad mood, feeling a little sad and worn out. You’re planning to order takeout, watch Netflix, and go to bed early. All of a sudden, your phone buzzes. It’s one of your friends asking a few people in your friend group if you’d like to grab dinner. You’re thinking to yourself, “There is literally NO WAY anyone is getting me off me couch tonight.” You’re feeling crappy, and you don’t want to make the effort to go out and be social. But as the texts roll in, your friends are begging you to come, saying that it will make you feel better. “Yeah right,” you think. But you go anyway.
At the end of the night when you’re getting ready for bed, you notice you’re in a way better mood! You’re so happy you went out because now you're feeling much more relaxed after venting about your horrendous day and then feeling the distraction that comes with hanging out with friends. You think, “Why did I ever consider not going?”
This, my friends, is the power of social support. Although it’s sometimes hard for us to put a finger on why positive friendships make us feel better physically and mentally, there is a lot of science behind the phenomenon. Without further ado, let’s dive in to the research!
People who are socially isolated are more likely to have health problems and to die sooner than people who are more socially connected. As crazy as it sounds, being socially isolated is about as bad for your health as smoking, having high blood pressure, and not exercising!
Social support doesn't just affect your health behaviors. For example, if you're someone with many supportive relationships, you might have more motivation to eat healthy, exercise, and not smoke. However, studies have shown that the effect of social support on health goes beyond just improving your health behaviors.
Your social relationships actually affect your underlying biology.
Loneliness and the quality of our relationships both change how your body reacts to stress and how your body works even when there is nothing immediately stressful to deal with. Humans are a social species, and being lonely makes us more aware of threats in the environment (since we don't have anyone to help us out if something bad happens). Our biology actually motivates us to seek out social connection for our safety and our well-being!
Being lonely is related to many biological changes. Loneliness is associated with higher blood pressure with age and also greater resistance in your blood vessels when blood is traveling through the body (increasing pressure on your cardiovascular system). People who are lonely have a harder time appropriately responding to stress. Often, their body's stress system (that produces the stress hormone cortisol) has difficulty responding to and then recovering from stressful situations, either responding too much or too little, both of which are not good for our health and safety. Loneliness is also associated with poorer sleep, which is bad for both mental and physical health.
Interestingly, our social relationships can affect our immune system as well. One study showed that adults with more types of social relationships (spouse, parent, friend, coworker, etc.) were less likely to develop a cold when exposed to the cold virus. Even among all the people who developed a cold, the people with more types of social relationships had less severe symptoms (they produced less mucus when they had a cold-- I'd hate to be the person who measured that!) and they had a better time containing their colds, which prevents it from spreading to others as easily.
A related study that was recently published showed that people who report being lonely aren't more likely to develop a cold, but when they do, their symptoms are worse. There's a good NPR story on it below if you're interested in learning more!
On the other hand, people who are more socially connected live longer and healthier lives. In order to figure out what helps us live long and healthy lives, researchers study people in communities where large numbers of people are known for living past age 100 (and are still healthy!). These communities are called blue zones. One of the major findings from studying these blue zones is that these centenarians (people who are 100 years old or older) usually report a strong sense of community with a large amount of social support. Strong social relationships in the community are a major source of health and happiness, and the centenarians in blue zones know that social relationships should be a top priority! This is important to remember when we're trying to build healthy communities!
Although we're often most concerned with the long-term effects of social support, it's really fascinating to note that there are many immediate effects of social interaction on your brain and your biology. These immediate effects are likely what make you feel calmer and happier while hanging out with friends! Of course, your brain actively processes what is going on when you're hanging out with friends or family. Humans are a very social species, and overall, your brain finds social interaction rewarding. In fact, interacting with others activates similar brain pathways as other rewarding things like money, drugs, and food! That doesn't mean that social interaction is harmful in the way that a drug or gambling addiction is harmful. That just means that we are motivated to do certain things -- like interact with other humans -- because it actually makes us feel good.
One study showed that when interacting with your spouse or family members, blood pressure is lower than at other times of the day, so social interactions can calm your cardiovascular system almost immediately! Levels of oxytocin, which has been referred to as the "love hormone" or the "cuddle hormone," often increase during social interactions. And oxytocin has been shown to lower blood pressure and lead to better wound healing, so increased oxytocin from social interactions may be a way that relationships improve health. Likewise, preparing for a stressful task with your best friend (for adults), lowers the level of the stress hormone cortisol that your body produces compared to when preparing for a stressful task alone. Too much cortisol can lead to greater fat accumulation around the stomach and a suppressed immune system, so the ability of social partners to buffer excess cortisol is one of the reasons we think that social relationships are so good for health!
We call the ability of social partners to lower our body's responses to stress "social buffering." After weeks, months, and years, these daily changes in our biology make a big difference on our overall mental and physical health!
However, there is a big exception to the protective effect of social relationships, as all relationships are not created equal! Abusive, unsupportive, and negative relationships are actually bad for your health, so it's definitely not good to have friends or family members who are bad for your emotional well-being. Friends and family members who are abusive, manipulative, make you feel unsafe and unsupported, or who disregard your feelings and your needs cause additional stress rather than relieve stress. And we all know from the last blog posts what stress does to our mental and physical health!
At this point, you might be wondering: How much social interaction is enough to positively impact your health? Unfortunately, we don’t know for sure. It likely varies between people because the level of support that's right for you is more subjective than objective. For example, some people may have one close friend or family member that they rely on and have frequent contact with, and they may feel very loved and supported overall. On the other hand, someone may engage in social interaction all day, every day without feeling supported and loved.
The most important indicator of social support is likely how you feel about your relationships. Feeling loved and supported by your social network is beneficial to your physical and mental health. Feeling lonely and unsupported is not.
It's more about the quality of your relationships and your social interactions than the quantity.
This is really important for people of all ages, but we really worry about social isolation in older adults. For seniors, who may not have many friends and family who are still living, social isolation can be especially dangerous. It could lead to big declines in health and also an increased risk for suicide. Older adults are at the highest risk for suicide in America (with middle age adults around the same level of risk), and having a lack of social support is likely a big reason for that. It’s important that we make sure seniors feel supported and that they have regular social contact. Programs that provide social support for seniors are a really great idea. Has anyone heard of programs in Europe where seniors and young adults live in a community together? I was giddy when I saw it because this type of community is likely extremely beneficial for the health and well-being of ALL residents, but especially the seniors!
Why is knowing the effect of social support on health important?
If you know of someone going through a rough time, knowing that social support is helpful can make you more aware of others' social needs. If a friend has a lot of stress at work or home, or if a family member is undergoing cancer treatments, you can help them by making sure they feel loved and supported. We know you can actually improve their mental and physical health this way -- no M.D. required!
Knowing about the powerful effect of social support on health can help you, too! When you’re feeling down, you can call people you love or make plans with friends to improve your mood and actually change how your body is reacting! You can also place a higher priority on developing and maintaining supportive relationships, which will likely improve your current and future health.
Action item: Next time you’re making a commitment to improving your health, make sure you include a plan for reinforcing your social support network. It may be as helpful as those extra trips to the gym!
I'll be attending the Society for Research on Child Development conference in Austin this week, and I can't wait to share the latest research when I get back!