research

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!

 

 

 

 

 

Breast Cancer & Friendship

"Slow down! Don't do it alone!" the stranger said to me as he passed me on my morning jog. I tried to force a polite smile, but what I really thought was: "What kind of a guy has the audacity to tell me what pace to set as though he thinks he's my coach? And who is he to care if I'm running alone this morning?" I rolled my eyes after I passed him and kept jogging.

Then horns began honking, pink pom-poms were seemingly spilling out from passing cars, and in front of me a group of five women cheered in response. Then two more in front of them followed suit. As those cars made their way down the busy street, small little groups of women, flashes of pink dotting the sidewalk, seemed appreciative of the praise. I looked around in confusion, shaken out of my jogging rhythm.

Almost as soon as I became conscious to the energy around me, I quickly realized I was not alone in my jog today.  Apparently my typical exercise route was being shared today with the amazing women participating in the Breast Cancer 3-Day Race for the Cure. They were seemingly everywhere on this busy street leading into the park.

Unknowingly, I had joined them on their course! And since my outfit was black and pink, I fit right in, looking like one of them!

I chuckled, feeling pride at what all these women and men were doing. My heart swelled with appreciation for their energy toward this cause.

Then I suddenly felt guilty.

Not only for being cheered as though I were steps away from completing the 60 mile, 3-day race (when in fact I was simply a girl trying to get a couple of miles in on a day that otherwise was a lazy Sunday); but also because I had appeared to be a solo jogging dissenter in an event that promoted community and walking.

If Life Could Be... I crossed the street and spent the rest of my run pondering how amazing life would be if we could model this race:

  • Where who you do it with counts more than how fast you do it.
  • Where in fact, pacing oneself for the long-haul is of higher value than speeding past someone.
  • Where the journey matters more than simply reaching the destination.
  • Where we care more about our health than our appearance (I saw some seriously 'over-the-top' outfits today! LOL!)
  • Where slowing down to walk with someone who's tired is more the purpose than a delay.
  • Where it matters more to us that we "all" make it, not just me.
  • Where strangers feel bonded because of a combined passion for a cause.
  • Where women cheer for each other, rather than compete.
  • Where men look over-joyed to be driving in cars covered in pink, honking for women and their success.

Oh to live in such a world!

The Friendship & Breast Cancer Link

Consider the headlines we’ve all seen from research out of the University of Chicago: Loneliness Heightens Risk of Breast Cancer. While we all feel the pull to do more, be more, and be better than everyone else, a reminder that sometimes just increasing the stress in our lives (to be the one jogging up the hill alone) while everyone else walks in groups, isn't necessarily success.

And the New York Times reported on the 2006  study of nearly 3,000 nurses with breast cancer that found that "women without close friends were four times as likely to die from the disease as women with 10 or more friends. And notably, proximity and the amount of contact with a friend wasn’t associated with survival. Just having friends was protective."

I share the research not to add any fear or guilt, but to give hope.  To remind us that when we feel tempted to withdraw, there is enough data to nudge us to reach out. And it's never too late to invite more love into your life.

Celebrate Breast Cancer Awareness! So this October, as we are celebrating National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, send your cards of celebration to the women who have survived this disease, and honor the memories of those who didn't. Wear your pink proudly and buy those products whose proceeds support the awareness and research we still need in this battle. Schedule your mammograms and value your breast health more than your breast size.

But above all, perhaps the wisdom of the stranger who cheered me on this morning might become your mantra this month? Words to be taken seriously: "Slow down! Don't do it alone!"

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To subscribe to Shasta's Friendship Blog (a weekly article on friendship, relational health, and personal growth) enter your email address in the top right corner. Shasta is the Founder of GirlFriendCircles.com, a women's friendship matching site.

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Easy Contest: A Save the Ta-Ta's Give-Away!

Ever since last spring when I met Julia Fiske, the founderof Save the Ta-Ta's (read about my mistake that almost cost me a friendship with her!)-- I've been a fan of their fun t-shirts that help fund research (they donate a portion of every purchase) while increasing the smiles on our faces.  The one pictured on this posting, "now is all we have",  is one of my fave's and they are going to send one of my lucky readers this awesome shirt!  :)

To be the lucky winner who has this shirt, in your chosen size, mailed to your house all you have to do is re-post/share this blog on your facebook AND be sure to tag our facebook page (@www.girlfriendcircles.com) so we can track your share! Contest ends at noon (PST) on Friday, Oct. 28. Winner will be selected randomly from those who share this post!

Step-by-Step Directions: To share this post on your facebook page:

1) first make sure you're a facebook fan of www.GirlFriendCircles.com by liking our page so you can tag us. 

2) Either copy/paste the blog post url into your facebook update or simply select the facebook sharing icon at the end of this post and it will do it automatically.

3) Write whatever status you want to share with your friends, highlighting this blog posting, and be sure to tag us by selecting the "@" key in your update, and start typing "girlfriendcircles" which should give you the option to select us, posting your update to our wall so we can track your involvement! (Should you have any problem tagging us-- simply share the post on your wall and come comment on our wall that you did it!)

THANKS! We'll announce the winner on our facebook page on Friday and contact her!