Friendships Healing Power

Debra Fulghum Bruce

A financial emergency. Corporate downsizing. Marital upheaval and divorce. A frightening diagnosis and impending surgery. Who hasn’t experienced life’s tough times, along with carrying the arduous baggage of anxiety, anger, and fear?

If you suffer from emotional distress, accompanied by nagging health concerns, you are probably well aware of the tension these can cause. Perhaps you have blamed the frantic pace of life for your lack of passion or enthusiasm in life. Yet when we are wrought by constant stress and turmoil, when life’s interruptions hit, they are greatly exaggerated.

The Cocoon Epidemic

For millions of harried people, hiding away in the comfort of their homes, or cocooning, is how they deal with constant stress. But cocooning may show that it does not offer protection against stress. In fact, more and more studies are finding that the most vulnerable people to illness are those who are socially isolated.

“Wait a minute!” you might say. “I thought I was de-stressing by shutting out society and all its problems.” If used appropriately, a “time out” is important in our hurried, fast-paced lives. This is an important tool we can use today, as rest is a safety valve from pressure.

The problem arises when we spend too much time alone. This can be a symptom of a greater problem (that of social isolation). On the one hand, you may be purposely avoiding some people or the problems you have in order to be able to face each day. In that case, it’s easy to find your home a secure haven where you are not on display and where there are loved ones around to meet your needs. On the other hand, you may be facing symptoms of mild depression, when loss of desire of being with friends or engaging in social activities are common warning signs. In that case, professional help should be sought.

Despite the potential for stress in close personal relationships, it’s becoming increasingly clear that long, healthy lives depend on strengthening our bonds with others. In study after study the findings were the same: people with many social contacts–a spouse, a close-knit family, a network of friends, church or other group affiliations–lived longer and had better health. In fact, those who had few ties with other people died at rates two to five times higher than those with good social ties. A full and rewarding social life can nourish the mind, the emotions, and the spirit, and good physical health depends as much on these aspects of ourselves as it does on a strong and well-functioning body. Research on stress-resistant personality traits has identified keys to staying healthy. These include:

  • Involvement in work or other tasks that have great meaning;

  • The ability to relate well to others; and
  • The ability to interact in a strong social network.

Studies show that this interaction or connection with others (social support) allows us to nourish our hungry souls and recharge after giving all to careers, kids, and community. When we are tied emotionally to those we love, we can let out our feelings of fear, insecurity, and guilt and receive comfort from people who accept us–just as we are–with no strings attached. Still, if we have no place that feels safe enough to let down our emotional defenses, then we tend to keep our guard up all the time–a negative, cynical, and sometimes defensive guard that numbly masks the very problems we are facing.

Perhaps the growing desire to connect with people–even strangers over the Internet–is an important reason for the growing quest for intimate relationships in our transient society. In years past, people lived close to family members and relied on parents and siblings for affirmation and emotional strength-even after marriage. When suffering occurred, people could turn to relatives for comfort and support. But with our highly mobile society, most adults today live hundreds of miles away from parents and siblings.

Relationships Are Healthy

No matter how far away you are from family members, having intimate relationships with family and friends is vital! It helps you feel cared for, helps maintain optimism, and aids in stress management. It is well documented that people who are happily married and/or have large networks of friends not only have a greater life expectancy compared with those people who do not, but they also have fewer incidences of just about all types of disease. Close, personal relationships give us a buffer in times of great stress and allow us to get our burdens off our chests safely.

Dr. David Spiegel, psychiatrist at Stanford University, documented what many scientists had speculated about: that social support can be a significant factor in prolonging the lives of women with breast cancer. Spiegel reported through his studies that this simple intervention prolonged life expectancy by an average of 18 months.

Not only are friends vital in keeping you well; it’s also the variety of social contacts you have that helps in protecting the immune system. In the Journal of the American Medical Association Dr. Sheldon Cohen, a researcher at Carnegie Mellon Univer-sity, reported that people with diverse social ties have a greater resistance to upper respiratory illness or colds. The more types of social ties, the more resistance to common colds and fewer cold symptoms.

Other research has reinforced this study. One groundbreaking study correlates frequent attendance at religious services with increased physical health and longevity. A study published by Duke University Medical Center revealed that those who attended church weekly or more often were significantly less likely in the previous year to have been admitted to a hospital, had fewer hospital admissions, and spent fewer days in the hospital than those attending less often. Other studies at Duke Univer-sity confirm that those who attended church were less likely to have some cancers, autoimmune diseases, and certain viral diseases.

Taking Action

How can you start today to increase your social network? Try these steps:

First, recognize when you’ve set up hurdles in your relationships. If you have worked hard all week and made a decision to be alone with your family on Friday evening, that is healthy. Yet when you stay home day and night, week after week, and pull out of social activities, you need to evaluate your behavior. Are you hiding from relationships? Are you overextended and without energy to enjoy friends and family? Are you suffering from mild depression?

The second step is to cut back your commitments and start to focus on moving beyond yourself into the lives of others. Starting with one day a week, make plans to be with other people. This could involve inviting friends over for a picnic on the weekend. Most of us get into the pattern of “doing nothing” and forget how invigorating it feels to be around other people.

Last, realize that as you break your habit of cocooning and begin to socialize with others, you are helping your health and well-being. Think of socialization not only as good for the mind and spirit, but as immunization against disease.

As you evaluate your own social network, it’s important to make sure you have support in four key areas. This support can be from family, friends, coworkers, or neighbors-just as long as you can count on it when you need it.

  • Emotional support. Someone you trust with your most imtimate thoughts and fears.

  • Social support. Someone you enjoy being with, who helps you cope with disappointments, and who celebrates your joys.
  • Informational support. Someone you can ask for advice on major decisions.
  • Practical support. Someone who will help you out in a pinch (neighbors or coworkers).

Rekindling Harried Spirits

There is no denying that we are a generation in a hurry. Most of us have very little time to sit with our family for a meal, visit with in-laws and friends, hug our children, listen to our spouses, know our neighbors–or even pray. In this regard, sometimes cocooning or taking time out for rekindling a harried spirit can be a gentle reprieve from the hurriedness of our society.

However, if you find yourself addicted to cocooning and the only socialization you get is channel surfing while resting in your recliner, perhaps you need to reevaluate your commitments and plan to get into the lives of others. Your health may depend on it!

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