|Posted on February 14, 2014 at 9:25 AM|
Good relationships are good for our health, according to the American Psychological Association and the National Institutes of Health. Having positive, supportive relationships can prevent illness by boosting the immune system, lowering blood pressure and reducing stress levels. Research shows that merely being in the presence of caring, supportive people can lower our cortisol levels. Cortisol is a hormone that floods the body and brain when we’re under stress. In the short term, it can be beneficial by increasing energy, activating muscles, decreasing sensitivity to pain and elevating heart rate. Long-term elevation of cortisol levels, however, leads to a number of health and mental health problems including high blood pressure, chronic pain and inflammation, decreased memory and attention, impaired problem solving, anxiety and insomnia. Brain imaging studies indicate that chronic elevation of cortisol may actually shrink the hippocampus, a structure in the brain that coverts short-term memories into long-term memory.
Healthy relationships also promote the release of beneficial hormones and brain chemicals. One such hormone and brain neurotransmitter is oxytocin, which is released when we bond with significant others, hug our children or even pet our pets. Studies have shown that oxytocin elevates mood and self-esteem and decreases physical pain. The release of oxytocin also has a calming effect and enhances the experience of empathy and emotional connection, according to research conducted by the University of California at Berkley and University of Southern California.
Feeling connected with others is good for the brain, too. We are “wired” to experience empathy, love and compassion, according to noted neuroscientists Richard Davidson (University of Wisconsin) and Daniel Siegel (UCLA). Whether we are directly experiencing positive interactions with our loved ones or merely observing other people engaged in kind, compassionate behavior, areas of our brain associated with positive emotions, insight and creativity are activated. The experience of love, compassion and emotional connection not only elevates our mood but also improves memory, learning and problem solving.
As Siegel notes, the relationships that begin in infancy can have a life-long impact. Being nurtured and loved by one’s mother as an infant promotes the healthy development of brain cells and the nervous system, and strengthens the immune system. Several recently published studies have highlighted the healthy effects of receiving positive parenting as a child, including the prevention of hypertension, diabetes, stroke and mental health disorders.
How we connect with others has a profound effect on our physical and mental health. Feeling love and compassion connects us with others, can heal our physical and emotional pain, improve our memory and mood as well as enhance our overall well-being.
( Originally Published in The Health Journal)