This isn’t some newfangled health idea; they teach it at Stanford University! A Stanford professor is teaching his students about the mind-body connection and the relationship between stress* and disease. The head of the Psychiatry Department at Stanford said, among other things, that one of the best things that a man could do for his health is to be married to a woman, whereas for a woman, one of the best things she could do for her health was to nurture her relationships with her female friends.
*Stress—any stimulus, such as fear or pain, that disturbs or interferes with the normal physiologic equilibrium of an organism.
From the time we’re young girls and learn how to befriend our favorite playmate, to when we’re teens and exploring who we’ll become, and on through all the phases of our lives—we need female friends to share life with, take care of each other unconditionally, support, encourage one another, and enhance each other’s life in ways too numerous to count. Yes, with changes through various life stages, friendships sometimes come and go. That said, in all stages we need a support system—strong, supportive women in our lives to live our best life and when we falter help us dust off, get up and start over again—only stronger.
Women connect with each other very differently than men do—providing support systems that help each other deal with the stresses and difficult life experiences we all encounter. Physically this quality “girlfriend time” helps us to create more serotonin—a neurotransmitter that helps combat depression and can help create a general feeling of well-being. Women are good about sharing feelings, whereas men often form relationships around activities like sports, hobbies and business interests. Men rarely sit down with a buddy and simply talk about their feelings or on the condition of their personal or professional lives.
Women, on the other hand, share their souls with our best friends, sisters, mothers, etc., and research now shows it’s actually good for their health. A professor at Stanford University commented that spending time with a trusted friend is just as vital to our general health as jogging or working out at the gym. He went on to say that we have a tendency to think that when we’re “exercising” we are doing something good for our bodies. However, when we are hanging-out with good friends in an environment where we are accepted, validated and feel safe, we often feel, or are meant to feel, that we are wasting our time and should be more productively engaged—not true. In fact, he said that failure to create and maintain quality personal relationships with other humans is as dangerous to our physical health as smoking!
Brain Pathways—Social Stress & Inflammation
Because inflammatory disorders are in epidemic proportions, I am citing research that will clearly show the connection of stress and inflammation in our brain pathways.
Everyone experiences social stress, whether it is nervousness over a job interview, difficulty meeting people at parties, or angst over giving a speech. In a new report, UCLA researchers discovered that how your brain responds to social stressors could influence the body’s immune system in ways that may negatively affect health. Lead author George Slavich, a postdoctoral fellow at the UCLA Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology, and senior author Shelley Taylor, a UCLA professor of psychology, show that individuals who exhibit greater neural sensitivity to social rejection also exhibit greater increases in inflammatory activity to social stress. And although such increases can be adaptive, chronic inflammation can increase the risk of a variety of disorders, including asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, cardiovascular disease, certain types of cancer, and depression.
Although increases in inflammatory activity are part of our immune system’s natural response to potentially harmful situations, according to Slavich, “Frequent or chronic activation of the system may increase risk for a variety of disorders, including asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, cardiovascular disease, and depression.”
One critical question raised by the present findings is why neural sensitivity to social rejection would cause an increase in inflammation. There are several possible reasons, the authors note. For one, inflammation may be triggered in anticipation of a physical injury, injury from any source—physical or emotional. Inflammatory cytokines—proteins that regulate the immune system—are released in response to impending (or actual) physical or emotional assault because they accelerate wound healing and reduce the risk of infection.
While short-term inflammation is useful in battling an injury, chronic inflammation arising from the mere perception of social rejection or emotional abuse is not.
“This is further evidence of how closely our mind and body are connected,” Slavich said. “We have known for a long time that social stress can ‘get under the skin’ to increase risk for disease, but it’s been unclear exactly how these effects occur. To our knowledge, this study is the first to identify the neurocognitive pathways that might be involved in inflammatory responses to acute social stress.”
Exactly how stress causes and contributes to disease is a question of particular interest to researchers. There are two likely pathways. One is behavioral—people under stress develop insomnia or un-restorative sleep, exercises less, and adopt poor eating habits. Stress also triggers a response by the body’s endocrine systems, which release hormones that influence multiple other biological systems, including the immune system.
Effects of stress on regulation of immune and inflammatory processes have the potential to influence depression, infectious, autoimmune, and coronary artery disease, and at least some (e.g., viral) cancers,” the authors write.
According to the authors, the strongest evidence that stress contributes to disease comes from research on depression, which shows that stress is associated with the onset of depression as well as those who have recovered from it. Cohen said that particular types of stress are the biggest culprits in depression, namely “social stressors” such as divorce, the death of a loved one, emotional and/or physical abuse. Depression also is common among people who have been diagnosed with a serious illness, suggesting that physical disease itself is a stressful event that can lead to depression. On the other hand, chronic stress—such as stress experienced daily in the workplace or in a dysfunctional or abusive relationship—contributes to cardiovascular illnesses such as coronary heart disease, a relationship that medical studies have clearly demonstrated, Cohen said.
The above illustrates some of the health effects of stress and, therefore, all the more reason to trust in that special female friend who will listen, support and allow you to reduce your stress by knowing someone is there that cares without judgment and will see you through the storm until the sun shines again. The one main thing to remember is that the friendship must feel “safe”—in other words, a place where feelings, fears and anxieties exchanged is private and you know it will not become tomorrow’s neighborhood gossip or the office discussion at the water cooler.
SO…next time you’re hanging out with a gal pal, just pat yourself on the back, stop feeling guilty about the time spent together, and congratulate yourself for doing something good for your health! Naturally.
- Lin ScienceDaily (Aug. 9, 2010) The study appears in the current online edition of the Journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.