I know what you are thinking… You’re thinking this article is about how romantic relationships can contribute to your health this Valentine’s Day. Well, yes, it’s about that but so much more Not only romantic relationships, but all social relationships can impact health. Part of human nature is seeking relationship. You could even call it a survival skill. Evolutionarily speaking, maintaining healthy relationships meant greater productivity, security and even gene perpetuation. Basically, relationships = life.
RELATIONSHIPS WITH OTHERS
Studies have shown that the quality and quantity of social relationships have both short and long term effects on health. These impacts begin in childhood and continue throughout life to create cumulative advantages or disadvantages in health. Relationships can contribute to mental and physical health, health behaviors and mortality risk.
Benefits of Positive Relationships
Involvement in supportive social networks and relationships is associated with healthy physiological states in the body including reduced heart rate, blood pressure and stress hormones. Emotionally supportive childhood environments promote healthy development of regulatory systems. The immune, metabolic, endocrine and autonomic nervous systems are affected with long-term consequences for adult health. With positive interactions come positive health behaviors. “Social ties can instill a sense of responsibility and concern for others that then lead individuals to engage in behaviors that protect the health of others, as well as their own health”. This includes a tendency toward healthy diets and exercise and a decrease in risky behaviors like tobacco and alcohol use.
Disadvantages of Negative Relationships
Negative or stressful social environments can also take their toll on health. Mental stress can contribute to anxiety or depression as well as unhealthy coping mechanisms. An increase in stress hormones can cause cardiovascular dysfunction, low immunity, slow wound healing and even excessive weight gain or loss. Acute stress can even cause broken heart syndrome, a type of cardiomyopathy with symptoms similar to a heart attack. This can lead to severe, short term heart muscle failure.
RELATIONSHIP WITH SELF
Having healthy relationships with others can contribute to positive self esteem and vise versa. Strong social support means that one is surrounded by people who care for them and enjoy their company. This informs and improves one’s sense of self-worth and all the wonderful health benefits listed above ensue. The better we feel about ourselves, the better equipped we are to choose relationships that are aligned with our positive sense of self. This is protective against potentially toxic relationships.
RELATIONSHIP WITH NATURE
Spending time in nature helps to reduce stress and increases a general sense of wellbeing. Bringing aspects of nature indoors like potted plants, nature-inspired decorations and window views to the outdoors can also have similar benefits. Physical activity in nature can help us reap health benefits for the mind, body and spirit.
RELATIONSHIP WITH HIGHER POWER AND SPIRITUALITY
Exploring our beliefs and spirituality can also benefit mental health and contribute to effective stress coping mechanisms. These can range formal religious affiliations to meditation, gratitude and forgiveness practices.
HERE ARE A FEW WAYS TO FOSTER POSITIVE RELATIONSHIPS AND REAP THE HEALTH BENEFITS:
Consider your relationships and reflect on their quality from time to time: This can help us remain grateful for our social support and/or work toward improvements, if necessary. Communication is the key to any healthy relationship: The ability to express oneself and actively listen to others is, in and of itself, a healthy start to personal and relational health. Consider volunteering and otherwise caring for others: It is often therapeutic to shift focus from ourselves and invest time and effort into helping those around us. Embrace nature: Consider caring for a pet, gardening, limiting screen time, exercising in nature or taking measures to live sustainably. These can all foster a connectivity to our environment. This assessment might be a good place to start in determining your current relationship with nature. Seek out positive interactions: Reach out to trusted friends and family members often and especially in times of stress, sadness or isolation. Avoid scenarios that contribute to negative emotions. For some, this may include a greater awareness of their response to social media activity.
In the end, the ideal would be to truly enjoy social relationships and experience peace and balance within ourselves - not only on Valentine’s day - but everyday!
Dr. Adeola Mead, ND is the Natural Choice Network's Healthy Living Content Coordinator. She is a Bastyr University graduate and Seattle based naturopathic physician. Dr. Mead is passionate about using natural medicine education as a powerful healing tool for both individuals and communities.