Saturday, January 24, 2015

Friendship as Therapy

Most people know this already, but it’s worth repeating.

Among the things that can bring you good health and happiness… are friends.

Diet and exercise should also be high on the list, and we are well aware of the importance they play in preventing heart disease. Unfortunately, for many people awareness is as far as they get. Far fewer of us actually do what we need to do.

We are less aware of the therapeutic benefit of having and cultivating friendships. If not friendships, then a circle of acquaintances will do.

One notes that romantic love, the grand passionate kind, does not appear on these lists. Perhaps, it is too stressful.

Whether we are talking about exercise or diet or friendship, they all require sustained effort. They do not happen all by themselves.

Whether it is the effort required to keep in touch with people who are less than bosom buddies or the effort required to put in time on the treadmill, good health depends on work.

That means that it does not depend on insight or awareness, on some kind of knowledge into why you are not doing what you need to be doing.

This also tells us why the most effective forms of psychotherapy involve a relationship that feels more like friendship than like romantic love. The form of therapy where the patient/therapist relationship is supposed to resemble romantic live—psychoanalysis—is notably the least effective.

So, anomie is bad for both your mental and physical health. Feeling disconnected from other people, feeling lonely damages you.

Julie Beck reports the latest research findings in The Atlantic:

Generally, friends are good for you. Decades of research link loneliness not just to depression, but to physical health problems as well. A seminal1979 study reported that risk of death over nine years was more than doubled for adults with the fewest social ties, compared to those with the most. Since then, scientists have continued to connect social isolation with mortality, as well as specific conditions like cancer. And a recent study published in Annals of Behavioral Medicine underscores one thing in particular: how relationships help protect the heart. Physically. But I suppose if you want, you can see it as a metaphor, too.

Later, she adds:

Plenty of other studies have linked a lack of social interaction to heart problems. The Swedish Survey of Living Conditions, which surveyedmore than 17,000 people, found that those with the fewest social contacts were at a 50 percent higher risk for dying of cardiovascular disease. And once someone has a heart problem, friends improve her chances of survival. In one study, women with suspected coronary artery disease were more than twice as likely to be alive after two years if they had a wider social circle, and also had lower rates of hypertension and diabetes. And in an American Heart Association study, after a heart attack, patients with low social support were more likely to have depressive symptoms and report low quality of life.

One study suggests that being with friends during a difficult time diminishes the stress, thus the production of the stress hormone, cortisol:

Another possibility is stress—stress is linked to heart disease, as well as many other conditions. Social support might help mitigate stress, and protect the body somewhat from its negative effects. In one small study, when children hung out with their best friends during a stressful situation, they had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol (which, in high levels over time, increases the risk for heart disease). The participants in Gouin’s study didn’t have their best friends in their city, but they still saw results with the presumably more casual connections they were able to make in five months.

Note the last sentence: even those who did not have their best friends present derived a benefit from hanging out with acquaintances. Being with other people, belonging to a group, feeling that you are not alone… all of these improve your physical and mental health.


n.n said...

I think it varies with individuals. For me, socialization offers a high, but sustained energy is derived in isolation. Therapy is carried out in a return to nature, away from the overstimulation of human things. I enjoy physical labor and wandering through the wilderness. At night, while drifting into sleep, a moment of introspection to reconcile unsorted information and issues.

Anonymous said...

I have 2 best friends. 50+ years. They live in CO. For various reasons, I stayed in IL for retirement. We talk at least weekly for an hour+, and visit occasionally.

I hadn't realized until now how salubrious it is.

But I'm sick, tired, disgusted to be told that every blinking thing that people do/don't do will either vivify or kill us.

There seems to be a lot of Thanatophobia among my fellow Boomers. That's a killer too. Poor babies. -- Rich Lara

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Rich Lara:

"But I'm sick, tired, disgusted to be told that every blinking thing that people do/don't do will either vivify or kill us."