health

Your Brain on Friendships

On CBS Sunday Morning, a news magazine program, they ran an awesome story this last weekend about the health benefits of friendship.(Watch the clip here, if interested.) In the segment on CBS, they showed two of these recent studies-- one in the field of psychology and the other in neuroscience.

Friendships Decrease How We Perceive Stressors

First, they re-enacted the psychology study that came out of University of Virgina a few years back that revealed how we assess life differently when a friend is nearby.  Students wearing a heavy backpack at the bottom of a hill were asked to estimate the steepness of the incline.  Some students were alone as they did the assignment, others had one friend standing beside them. The lead professor, Dr. Dennis Proffitt says on Sunday Morning, "They find the hill to be steeper if they are alone, and less steep if they are with friends."

When a friend stands nearby we perceive the hill to be less steep than when we are standing alone.

First, let's just let that one sink in for one moment.  How many of us feel exhausted or weary by life?  How many of us feel a wee bit overwhelmed?  How many of us feel like the metaphoric hill in front of us feels too steep? If there was a way to face life where our perception was radically changed to perceive our situations as a wee bit easier, less intimidating, and more do-able, would you want it?  Our social support is one such factor.

Interestingly, the research also showed that the more intimate and meaningful the friendship, the less steep the hill was perceived; and that conversely when subjects were asked to think of a neutral or disliked person they estimated the hill to be even more steep. That speaks volumes for how important forgiveness and boundaries can be-- if I let someone I don't like keep filling my thoughts then I'm more likely to view life as hard and steep!  Our invitation isn't just to invite friends to stand close in our lives, but it's also to find peace with those around us who might be adding to our stress.

Friendships Reduces Actual Stress in our Brains

The second highlighted study contrasted MRI brain activity when a subject who was receiving intermittent mild electrical shocks was alone or while holding the hand of a friend.  Not knowing when the shocks were going to occur, this test showed the brain response to our anticipatory anxiety, the type of stress so many of us live with as we worry about all the things that are uncertain.  The parts of our brain that sense danger are much less active when we're holding the hand of a friend.

When we are holding the hand of a friend while experiencing anticipatory stress, there is less wear on our brains than when we face stress alone.

Dr. James Coan, the lead researcher in this study and a neuroscientist at the University of Virginia, said to CBS Sunday Morning: "The burden of coping with life's many stressors... when you have to deal with them all by yourself, it not only feels more exhausting, it literally creates more wear on your body."

Similarly, Dr. Coan's work focuses a lot on marriages, too, showing that when faced with a fearful or stressful situation, it doesn't only feel comforting to hold our husbands hand, but actually is comforting as our brain scans show that our anxiety is literally reduced.

Three Friendship Choices to Lower your Stress

I am ever grateful that the topic of friendship, which has long been held as a warm-and-fuzzy subject, is actually grabbing the attention of scientists who are able to articulate to us the significance of our relationships.  For far more than simply a feel-good theme, the results of studies that focus on our friendships are compelling us to acknowledge that this is actually one of the most important health factors in our lives. It's long been my soapbox that right up there with "eat vegetables, exercise, and get enough sleep" should also be "spend quality time with friends."

Because it's not enough to just have had good friends in our past.  We actually need them now.  We don't want to lie to our brains and say, "I'm too busy to make friends right now" which is another way of saying we're too stressed to add one more thing, when in actuality we need those meaningful friendships to actually decrease our stress!

Here are three ways you can move toward a less-stressful, more friend-filled life.

  1. Invest now in new friends if your goal is meaningful friends.  Many of us don't take the time to be with new friends because it's not meaningful, easy, and deep yet compared to our close friendships.  But showing up for "coffee dates" (or your repeated activity of choice!) with a new friend now is how you make sure you have that close friend next year.
  2. Add some more consistency with someone you already feel intimate with.  Many of us have friends we know deeply but we rarely talk to them or see them because of distance. If you feel like you don't have local close friends yet, consider talking weekly on the phone with a far-flung friend so you can at least reap the benefits of intimate support while you're fostering the local friendships that aren't yet intimate.
  3. Be a wee bit more vulnerable.  I devote an entire chapter in my book "Friendships Don't Just Happen!" to this topic to help us understand what vulnerability is, what it looks like, and how appropriate it is to grow it slowly.  But in both these studies, the friend was standing close or holding a hand, which means that part of the benefit means they were nearby, present, or engaged. To simply have friends who know nothing about our lives (and therefore can't really support us) doesn't fully capture the benefits possible!  We have to let people get a little closer.

There was a time when people thought it silly to go jogging or work out at a gym.  It was foreign thought that we'd set aside time in our lives to exercise if we weren't professional athletes.  But as our lives became more sedentary, the need for intentional physical movement became obvious.

Similarly, as our lives become more disconnected from tribes, social circles, and nearby family, we are in a time where we all need to swallow the truth that we must become more intentional about fostering meaningful friendships. Not just because we're lonely or wish we had someone to go do something with, but because our health-- physical and emotional-- are dependent on it.

It is no small thing that with a friend nearby you will not only experience less stress, but also perceive the world with less stress. And less stress means longer lives, less disease, and more joy.

To your health!

This segment on friendship also included an interview with Dr. Irene Levine, a women I admire for her healthy friendship advice, and stories featuring two separate groups of friends. I was particularly moved by the group of male friends they showed as I think there is need for so much modeling of deep male friendship in our society.  Job well done CBS!

 

 

 

 

 

6 Books to Help Your Friendships

I often quote the research from BYU that revealed just how important friendships are to our health.  The sentiment of the research didn't surprise me at all, but what they compared it to sure did! After compiling extensive relational studies, researchers revealed that if you feel disconnected-- it is worse for your health than smoking 15 cigarettes a day, twice as harmful as being obese, and as damaging as being an alcoholic. What shocks me most is how little training and teaching we get, outside of our own experience, in this ever-important life area of relationships.  Compare how much attention your teachers and leaders have given to the three things listed as less significant than your relationships: obesity, drinking and smoking.  Seriously! We have laws against smoking and drinking, yet it's never been illegal to be isolated! We have  billboards and commercials showing the effect of smoke on our lungs and the aftermath of driving while buzzed, but I've never seen one showing the effects of loneliness.  Even if your nutrition and physical education classes in school left a lot to be desired, at least they had them.  I never took a class on healthy relationships.

In an area that is touted to be most significant to our health, happiness, and longevity-- we just hope healthy relationships comes naturally. Unfortunately, with 85% of us admitting to having toxic friends, I'm not blown away by how well we've taught ourselves.

6 Books that Teach Healthy Friendships

Here are six books I think could help us start being more intentional in our healthy friendship education:

  1. Consequential Strangers, by Melinda Blau and Karen Fingerman, Ph.D.  As the tagline suggests, "The Power of People who Don't Seem to Matter But Really Do," you may not feel inspired to buy this book because you may not realize just how significant your connections through out the day can be in your life.  However, this book is hugely revealing and has much to teach us about our wider networks. For those of you familiar with my 5 Circles of Connectedness, this book is all about just how important the left-side of our continuum can be.
  2. A Return to Love, by Marianne Williamson.  The middle third of this book is one of the most impressive visions of healthy relationships on the market, not just friendships. While her field is spiritual growth, her case is that all our personal growth happens in our relationships.  She showcases the importance of every interaction we have, from what seems inconsequential to us all the way to the people with whom we have lifetime assignments. Her call to us to give love rather than project fear is inspiring.  To show up with others on a soul level rather than ego level would change the world.
  3. The Power of Female Friendship: How Your Circle of Friends Shapes Your Life, by Paul Dobransky, M.D. This book goes way past warm-and-fuzzy to give you really fabulous scientific charts, graphs, and formulas. His definition of friendship ("Friendship is consistent, mutual, shared positive emotion") is still one I use in my teaching-- helping women know the 4 things that must be present in a healthy friendship. He breaks up friendship in some of the most thought-provoking ways teaching psychology, boundaries, emotional health, and brain function.
  4. Best Friends Forever, by Irene Levine Ph.D. This tagline will sell the book: "Surviving a Breakup with Your Best Friend."  She's quick to remind you that it's an unhealthy myth to believe that your friendships should last forever, with most of us staying in touch with only 1 out 12 of our friends.  She's also quick to sympathize with why it can, ironically, sometimes be harder and more painful to end friendships than it is to end our romantic loves.  Her guide will help you thoughtfully process which friendships to let go, how to do it, and how to heal.
  5. The Friendship Fix, by Andrea Bonior, Ph.D.    This recent book is a fast and fun read as it aims to help women in their "choosing, loosing, and keeping up" with their friends.  I'd recommend this book especially to those in their 20's and 30's still trying to figure out how to do friendship as adults beyond college. Her style is witty and helpful in identifying what kind of friend you are, how to transition friendships through the marriages and pregnancies, and how to think through friendships with exes, family members, and work colleagues.
  6. Find Your Strongest Life, by Marcus Buckingham. This book isn't about friendship per say, but is about how women can live successfully and happily by leaning into your strongest role (9 options, we all have 1-2 primarily).  I put this book on the list for those of you who already have a fulfilling circle of friends as I think this is a fun way to get to know each other better.  The five-minute online test is free, but unpacking the results and learning about how you each give differently in the friendship is priceless. This is a great book to go through with a group of girlfriends as you all commit to cheering for each other as you seek to live your strongest life.

I'm holding spot #7 for a book that is to be released in January (you can pre-order) titled "MWF Seeking BFF" where the author, Rachel Bertsche writes about her year of weekly friend-dating as she went from friendless in Chicago to establishing a local circle of friends.  This will be an inspiring read for most of you who know what it's like to need to make new friends but feel the fear and insecurity of actually starting friendships from scratch.

And then spot # 8?  Well maybe I should write one?  :)

So there you have it.  Gold stars for those of you who actually decide to read one of these!  I really want to remind you that to simply sit back and hope for more friends isn't going to do it. Much like the fact that you have to get off the couch to get healthy, we're truly going to have to learn to keep making and fostering healthy friendships throughout our lives.

To reading that can change your life....