You have had a stressful day at work- everything that could go wrong has gone wrong. When you finally get home you want nothing more than to collapse on the sofa and take a long nap. As you walk in the door you are greeted by big eyes with an attentive stare, small, greeting sounds and a warm face happy at your arrival. You reach out to pet or stroke that furry head and your heart warms and your body relaxes. A small act of companionship has just extended your lifetime and improved your health
Our lives are built on a balance of solitude and togetherness. We need “down-time” as much as we need time with others. Yet it is the knowledge that we belong that is critical to health and our wellbeing. Knowing that there is someone who is waiting to see us when we return is as important a part of our time in retreat as the time we spend alone. Quality relationships and the belief that we are loved and cared for sustain us even during the times we are most alone.
Stress and Physical Health
The mind-body connection has a long history in our understanding of health and wellness. Our thoughts and moods can improve or impair our health as much as diet, exercise, and other health practices. Negative thoughts, focusing on stressful memories or experiences, or unrelenting sadness or anger can increase our blood pressure, blood glucose levels, heart rates and lower our breathing rates and the effectiveness of our digestion. Stress can literally kill us without leaving a clearly defined mark on our bodies.
I often encourage clients experiencing chronic medical issues to practice meditation and mindfulness exercise to increase their awareness of stress, anxiety, and depression in their lives. Recognizing that physical symptoms react to and amplify negative thoughts, moods, and behaviors is a key step in breaking a cycle of physical and psychological suffering feeding and reinforcing each other.
Relationships Increase Happiness and Lower Risk of Illness
Researchers, however, are beginning to recognize that our inner lives are not the only factor impacting our health. Our relationships have a significant impact on our well-being and resistance to illness and stress, even death (Umberson and Montez, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3150158/ ). Persons in meaningful relationships generally report lower levels of depression and anxiety, greater satisfaction with life and work, and lower levels of physical discomfort pain even when they are dealing with chronic illnesses. Feeling that you belong and are valued has an invaluable impact on reducing levels of inflammation, tension, and stress related hormones (e.g. adrenalin, cortisol, etc)
While a full understanding of how our relationships improve our physical health continues to develop, a simple explanation relates to our most basic drive for survival and our instinctive recognition that we are more likely to survive and thrive when we have others around us who are supporting and working for our well-being. Our experiences of our sight, touch, smell, and taste senses reinforce our feelings of safety and connectedness. In response our body can relax and levels of stress hormones decline allowing our body to function more naturally.
Even Past Relationships Affect Our Health
For many of us, however, our current relationships are only a part of the larger picture of relationships and their impact on our health. Our past relationships continue to impact our health in many significant ways. I often remind clients that one of the great strengths and weaknesses of our brains is that it does always distinguish between what we are truly experiencing and what we are imagining we are experiencing. The parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems are both responsive to the memory of a stressful as much as to the actual event itself. Thus remembering a scary or a pleasant event both can trigger a physical response of fear or pleasure as significant as the original events themselves.
Researchers such as nan der Kolk and Siegel are also highlighting the importance of how our past relationships have taught us to respond to stress and crises. We learn and model our own behavior on what we witnessed from those around us. If this behavior were healthy and accepting we learn to use these behaviors ourselves- including being attentive to and responsive to our needs and hurts. If we grew up in environments that were chaotic, abusive, or neglectful we may have learned to survive by ignoring our own thoughts and needs and being suspicious and disconnected from others.
Skills for Increasing Healthy Relationships
Being physically healthy and developing healthy relationships is a job- there is no way around it. We have to exercise to strengthen our bodies and eat right to manage our weight, blood sugar, and cholesterol. The same is true for relationships-we have to build in activity that supports and encourages interaction and connection. We have to use touch, sight, hearing, and even taste and smell to connect and create positive memories with those we love. We also have to be mindful of what and who we bring in to our relationships. There is a need to monitor and measure out how much of our work stress, our financial and property concerns, and our past relationships we allow to come into our current relationships. We have to recognize how easily we can crush those we love when we are unable to distinguish them from those who frustrate and persecute us.
The “exercise” and “diet” are built on simple but effective behaviors:
- Make eye contact regularly- let them know you see them
- Speak to each other in a personal manner- by name and in tones and rates that reflect respect and caring
- Touch- hug, hold hands, massage tired shoulders, sit close, kiss
- Recognize your own stress level and address it where it belongs- at work, with your family of origin, etc.- and not on those who do not deserve it.
- Practice meditation-breathing, reflections, mindfulness exercises
- Develop hobbies and interests of your own- make yourself interesting to other by having something to share
- Create time to focus to your relationship- acknowledge that the relationship is important by setting aside time to be present with person you care about.
Building healthy and sustaining relationships is an important part of developing a healthy lifestyle. We are biologically hard wired to find our own way of connecting and belonging. These connections build stronger minds and bodies and increase our chances of longer and healthier lives. Sometimes, however, our memories and experiences of abuse and chaotic relationships can undermine our best attempts to connect, to grow into healthy relationships. We may struggle and despair that relationships are possible.
Trust and hope are key parts to undertaking the work of building toward a healthier life. Many people question if such thing is even possible-they despair of being able to connect, of feeling happy, or of finding the love they so strongly desire. I understand. I have been there and I continue to work and struggle. But learning and working and growing are the tools to breaking out of isolation. My work with clients is built on the belief that our ability to connect, to discover that we are not alone, and to discover our unique opportunity for love and belonging are greatest source of health and meaningful living available to us. Come in and begin the work.