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Can Your Friendships Affect Your Health?

One of the recurring themes in my practice (and here on “Wellness Wednesday”) is the principle that we humans are multi-faceted creatures, and each facet has its own form of wellness. We are not just skeletons, nor are we just minds. You are a spirit, you have a mind, and you live in a body.

We can haggle over the relative importance of each of the components (some people say the spirit is the most important part of your life, while others emphasize the role of the mind), but you can’t argue the fact that the level of wellness you experience in one area of your life (or lack thereof) affects your experience of wellness in the others. As a chiropractor and wellness coach, I’ve come to realize that, if I want to foster wellness in your physical body, I have to be aware of the wellness of the other areas of your life.

That’s why I want to talk this week about the importance of your friendships.

Your Friendship and Your Health

Did you just do a double-take?

Whenever I give a “Blue Zones” presentation, this is one of the areas I get the most surprised looks from the audience. People tend to compartmentalize their lives, and physical health and social health tend not to fall into the same compartment in most of our minds.

Why are your friendships important to your physical health, and not just your mental and emotional health? Let’s skip past the obvious idea that a good friend will take care of you when you’re sick and go deeper.

Stress Relief

Think about a time when you were feeling stress or anxiety and a good friend came to comfort you. What was happening in that moment on a biological level? The stress hormone, cortisol, was probably coursing through your body because of the “fight or flight” mechanism, causing tension and fatigue in your muscles, nausea in your digestive system, and racing thoughts in your mind. If you leave the cortisol faucet on, not only will it begin to damage your organs and muscle tissue, it will begin to activate the c-reactive proteins that are at the core of inflammation in your body. These c-reactive proteins are linked to arthritis, psoriasis, irritable bowel syndrome, asthma, and dozens of other chronic diseases. It’s not a long stretch to assert that you can worry yourself to death, or at least a life of uncontrolled pain.

When you were at your lowest and a good friend came to help you shoulder the burden, you probably experienced a burst of the pleasure neurotransmitter, oxytocin, or the social comfort neurotransmitter, dopamine. (Dopamine is the same stimulant you feel when you get a little red number on your Facebook app or you come home to find you have birthday greetings on your answering machine. Beware, it’s highly addictive). These biochemical signals flow through your body, triggering your endocrine system to release healing proteins into your bloodstream. Even if the friend only stopped by for a minute to listen to you talk, it probably didn’t just make you feel better emotionally, it likely stemmed the flow of disease and caused your body to heal.

Foxhole Brotherhood

That’s why friendships that form in the crucible of middle school often last a lifetime. I don’t care what anyone says, middle school is a war zone, where half-formed mini-adults struggle to manage a raging tide of neurotransmitters they don’t understand. I’m never surprised that middle schoolers say terribly hurtful things to each other; I’m always shocked when they demonstrate the emotional maturity to be selflessly kind to each other. When kids find a safe person in middle school, when things are at their worst, they often hang onto them for life. Do you have a friend like that from your childhood? I’m not talking about those people you found on Facebook twenty-five years after high school–those relationships tend not to be life-giving on the same level as a friend you have known deeply and communicate with regularly for a long time. And it’s not about proximity: research shows that the physical distance between two good friends has little to no affect on the health benefits of their friendship if they stay in regular contact and share deeply.

What About Now?

So what about friends who are physically closer to you today and didn’t know you when you wore braces and parachute pants? A 1989 study in the medical journal, The Lancet, tracked women with breast cancer. Those who were assigned to a support group with other cancer patients tended to live longer and report better quality of life than women who did not participate in a support group. There is something life-giving about exchanging feelings of empathy or sympathy with someone who is walking a similar road in life. I think this kind of nurturing spirit rises more easily in women, but there are men in my life with whom I have had the privilege of sharing burdens, and I am very grateful for their friendship.

Hermits vs Social Butterflies

I have patients (and even some friends and acquaintances) who like to keep to themselves. Some of them moved to South Florida to get away from their extended families and social circles. I understand their motivation on some level, and respect their preference for solitude. But there is a difference between solitude and isolation.

Humans were created for relationship, and when they isolate themselves, a part of them starts to die. If you let your social self deteriorate far enough, it will begin to harm your mental self, your emotional self, and even your physical self.

The sad fact is that relationships are messy, and sometimes they hurt. But while it might feel like isolation is sheltering you from stress, it is actually creating an emotional environment that fosters chronic stress. A 2010 review of research that included over 300,000 patients found that people with stronger ties to a community (either through the number of friends or depth of friendships) lived longer and healthier lives. The stronger the social network, the more effectively they processed stress hormones that contributed to high blood pressure, body mass, and other biomarkers.

The Benefit of Positive Friends

That said, you owe it to yourself to be selective about your relationships. You can’t choose your family, but you can choose your social circles, and you can choose what percentage of your time you give to different people.

One of the secrets of my professional success is that I intentionally surround myself with positive, forward-looking people. I’m very fortunate in that, most of my family members fall into this category, and I have terrific relationships with my family members, but I remember times when I chose to be around negative, complaining, fault-finding, selfish, entitled people (and before you jump to conclusions, I am not including my ex-wife in that group, so just stop). Other peoples’ negative thinking permeates into your mind, no matter how positive you might try to be.

If you hang around people who consistently choose an unhealthy lifestyle (or mock your efforts to live healthily), they will drag you down. I have seen it written in several places, “obesity is contagious.” It’s true to some degree. Bad company corrupts good morals. It’s much easier to give into a sedentary, entertainment-based, pleasure-seeking lifestyle that to pursue long-term health and wellness. That’s just the fact. If health, wealth, and wisdom were easy, everyone would be healthy, wealthy, and wise. But it’s easier to coast into laziness.

Build A Community of Friends

If I want to live my best life, my own willpower will only take me so far. I need a community of positive people who will hold me accountable to keeping my goals before me and pressing toward the mark to achieve them. You are a part of that community. As long as you are reading my blog every week, I can’t afford to let myself get lazy or casual. You hold me to a higher standard, and I appreciate it.

The same is true for people who want to be healthy. Find a support group of people who are going where you want to go, and encourage each other along the way. We’re building a community of health-minded individuals on Facebook. Let’s use that space to encourage each other to live our best lives. And let’s use it to bring others along. Take a few seconds to share this on your favorite social channel. You might have a friend who is looking for someone to take their hand and encourage them to live healthy. We all have people around us who want to pull us down to their comfort zone. But that’s not the life we want. Let’s pull each other up.

“At the end of your FEELINGS is NOTHING; at the end of your PRINCIPLES is a PROMISE.”  — Eric Thomas

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