Friendship is Powerful Medicine
By Mark Kenyon - Published in the Berkshire Eagle, October 26, 2015
Centuries ago, the English Poet John Donne famously wrote that “No man is an island.” All these years later, and after much research on the health benefits that result from having strong connections with others in our life, we understand the powerful truth behind Donne’s words. Of the four pillars of integrative health – physical, emotional, mental and spiritual – the concept of social bonding and connectedness may be seen as part of the foundation that supports all four of them. A human in isolation is likely to wither, rather than thrive.
More recently, Simon and Garfunkel sang “I am a Rock,” adding that a “rock feels no pain.” However desirable that may be for some of us from time to time, it is not true to human nature. Human beings are social animals. The number of close friends we have, the frequency of our interactions with family and friends, our trust in neighbors, and the level of participation in neighborhood and volunteer activities all play a role in supporting our well-being. Even more important, friendship influences health, both directly and indirectly.
One of the leading factors contributing to resiliency of the human spirit and emotional recovery from traumatic life events is the interconnectedness we have to one another. One of my heroes in the field of resilience and post-traumatic growth is George Everly, Jr., PhD, who is considered an international leader in disaster mental health. He writes that following a traumatic event, the strength of an individual’s social support network will determine how well he or she recovers. According to Everly, interpersonal support and connectedness are among the five most important features of a resilient person, along with a belief in something greater than ourselves, a sense of purpose, and hope for the future.
Many other renowned scientists have done extensive research on humanity’s ability to gather emotional strength from family, friends and neighbors. This doesn’t mean that all of our interactions with our social networks must always be positive. Engaged and enriching relationships often have a positive-to-negative ratio of three to one for interactions. For our primary relationships with a spouse or domestic partner, the ratio is five to one. More is better? Definitely not! Research shows that anything higher than an 11 to one ratio leads to a decrease in trust and engagement. It just doesn’t seem genuine.
Here’s another great point for increasing our social bonds: hugs make people happier. Imagine that! The human touch is magical. Not only does it increase the strength of our relationships, it also works in our brain to make us happier. When one person touches or hugs another person, our brain produces a neurotransmitter – a brain chemical that affects our mood called Oxytocin. It gives us a natural “high” that works to increase our social bond.
Our physical health can benefit from social bonding as we seek companionship, support, and accountability when we take on a lifestyle change. There is much power in meeting a friend to take a walk, talking to a buddy about that new eating plan we’re starting, or asking a loved one to give you support and understanding as you quit smoking. Compassionate friends are important in our emotional recovery and resilience, as well. It’s always nice to have someone in your life – a friend, a relative, or even professional help – to get through the emotionally tough times that life sometimes hands us. The process of sharing and of being understood by another person is powerful medicine in working through difficult situations.
I think The Beatles had it right back in 1967 when they told us how to “get by with a little help from my friends.” After all, no one is an island!
Mark Kenyon, LMFT, LADC-I, CEAP, is a licensed Marriage & Family Therapist and Alcohol & Drug Counselor. He works at Berkshire HealthWorks, the Employee Assistance Program of Berkshire Health Systems, and as a Behavioral Health Coach in the Wellness Program at BHS.