Time spent with friends is time well-spent, not just because it's FUN, but it is also GOOD FOR OUR HEALTH. Study after study shows that social connections bring down our blood pressure, our heart rate, and even our cholesterol. People with stronger support systems have less stress, stronger and more resilient immune systems, lower rates of depression and anxiety, and even lower mortality rates. According to Daniel Goleman, in his book Social Intelligence, "the impact [of close friends] appears to be so strong that friendlessness has been found to be as detrimental to a woman's health as smoking or obesity." Not only does a person who feels a sense of belonging have a better chance of staying healthy than someone who is isolated, but when we do get sick, we have a better chance of recovering from that illness.
In my work with clients around their relationships to food, I am always interested in the quality of their relationships to the people in their lives. Do they have strong connections, a sense of community, people who they can turn to and feel supported by? Although I believe that good nutrition can improve energy and mood, which in turn, can help with relationships and connections to others, the opposite is also true: Our relationships, our friendships, our connections - and how we feel about them - can profoundly affect our relationship to food.
Think about it for a minute: When you are feeling isolated and alone, do you ever turn to the refrigerator for comfort? When you are feeling angry and misunderstood, do those crackers or pretzels provide momentary relief? When you are frustrated or sad, or perhaps feeling uninspired or bored, is it the Chubby Hubby ice cream that you hear calling your name?
Yes, those foods taste yummy and we all indulge once in a while. When those cravings SCREAM at us from the inside, and we end up turning to them INSTEAD of another person on a regular basis, however, it may mean something else is up.
Many of the comfort foods I just mentioned DO provide a biochemical, PHYSIOLOGICAL sense of relief- they immediately affect our blood sugar levels and alter our brain chemistry, and they feel goooooooooood (in the short run). Interestingly, when we are feeling connected to a friend or a partner, when we are feeling love for another or loved by another, our brain chemistry and our biological health is also affected. This time, however, the long-term effect on our body's health and chemistry is positively affected.
Although positive relationships and connections are GOOD for your health, negative relationships can be BAD for your health, You know the ones I mean: the colleague who DRAINS you every time you see him; the old friend who seems to mean well but somehow makes you feel worse about yourself after you spend time together; the friend who somehow doesn't seem able to see past herself to what's going on for you. Not only do these relationships deplete you and negatively impact your physical and emotional health, but they also may make you "hungry" for more...and that more is unfortunately often temporarily found in a pint or so of ice-cream.
The following tips will help you reap the benefits from your relationships:
1) Remember that friendships and connections are not a luxury. Like sleep and good nutrition, they are vital for good health.
2) Every day, reach out to someone you care about - call them, send an email, or make time to see them.
3) Connect with yourself every day - whether it's through meditation, journal writing or a walking alone through the park, taking time to have a relationship with yourself is key to maintaining healthy relationships with others.
4) Give what you would like to get. Instead of waiting and waiting for someone to be a "better friend," or more supportive, try reaching out and offering what you would like to get in return. Although this may sound cliché, what we give to others usually comes back to us in spades.
5) Minimize your contact with draining, negative people. If you can't minimize contact with them, develop solid boundaries so you don't absorb their negativity.
6) Eat several meals a week with people you like...allow yourself to experience and absorb the nourishment that comes not only from the good food, but also from the connection. Some studies show that eating with someone in a supportive environment may play an important role in enhancing our health.
7) If you have children, take time to connect with them and help them develop deep connections with others. Studies show that socially adept preschoolers have lower levels of stress hormones (which is, of course, good for their mental and physical health).
8) Take a risk in your friendships: reach out to someone new that you felt some chemistry with; share your vulnerabilities and concerns with friends and allow them to support you; let your friends know how important they are to you.
9) If you are feeling lonely or disconnected, join a group, a club, or a class. In fact, join several. If one or several of your relationships are strained, make the effort to improve them.
10) If all of these suggestions feel "useless" or uncomfortable, consider taking a look inside: Are your thoughts or feelings preventing you from allowing yourself to get close to others? Do you feel unworthy of having good friends? Are you afraid of having close friends?
The challenge for all of us in our busy lives is to make the time for our friends, for a leisurely lunch (not a business lunch), for a walk in the woods (not a power walk), for mindless telephone chatter (not to arrange a carpool or play date), for quality, focused time to connect. Make a commitment to yourself to do at least one thing this week that will enhance the quality of your connections. . .and allow yourself to experience the positive impact this has on your wellbeing.