Mental health and wellbeing is very close to our hearts, and while we truly aim to have an always-on approach to covering all aspects of mental health, we have chosen to shine an extra bright light on #WorldMentalHealth today, and for the rest of October.
We bring you The Big Burn Out — a content series made up of honest personal essays, expert advice and practical recommendations.
Along with staying active and managing our stress levels, self-care should also require looking at the quality of our friendships. Turns out maintaining meaningful friendships — or negative ones — has far more of an impact on our health than we'd assume. According to friendship expert Shasta Nelson, who partnered with Facebook for Friends Day, "Feeling supported is more significant to our health than what we eat and whether we exercise." Your closest friends are actually helping to boost your overall health, especially in terms of reducing stress.
In a 2006 study conducted by James Coan, PhD, a psychology professor and director of the Virginia Affective Neuroscience Laboratory at the University of Virginia, the cortisol levels of 16 married women were studied using MRI scans. Researchers compared their physiological responses to an electric shock, either while holding their partner's hand, while holding a stranger's hand, or undergoing the jolt alone. Results showed that only a third of their cortisol levels lit up in the brain when they were comforted by a close companion.
"When we feel supported, it actually buffers our body from absorbing the impact of the stress."
So how do we measure the health of a friendship, or "frientimacy," as Shasta calls it? She said there are three things to keep in mind: positivity (is there more good than bad?), consistency (are you making an effort to connect?), and vulnerability (how much are you sharing?).
She also said that in order for us to feel like we're in a positive relationship, there need to be five positive feelings for every negative one. For example, if you're feeling hurt that your friend never initiates plans with you and they continue to cancel, those negative feelings will continue to outweigh the good. But once you do have an opportunity to spend time together, it puts the situation into perspective. Overall, you need to find ways to lessen stress in a friendship and boost positivity in order for it to be healthy and, therefore, lasting.
Having quality friendships becomes even more important to our health in our adult years. Shasta explained that how connected we feel to others is a better predictor of our longevity and long-term mental health than any other factor. Harvard's well-known multigenerational study that looked at the secrets to health and happiness supports this idea exactly. It found that loneliness does in fact kill, while those who are socially connected tend to live longer, happier, and healthier lives.
In the same way that valuable relationships can have a positive impact on our health, unhealthy ones can have an adverse effect. "Having unhealthy relationships is more damaging to our health than having no relationship," Shasta said. "They have ongoing stress and drama with them, so we're kind of constantly in fight-or-flight mode, which can be incredibly damaging to our well-being and our happiness."
If you're now freaking out about the fact that you and your best friend don't see each other often, don't panic. It's more about quality over quantity. For example, maintaining monthly lunch dates doesn't compete with spending an entire day or weekend together. Shasta also emphasized the importance of small gestures, like touching base via texts and keeping up with each other on social media. According to Facebook, there were twice as many posts about friendship in 2017 than in 2016, which gives us hope that more people are valuing their friendships more than ever.
Moral of the story: go and call your BFF ASAP — it's good for your health!