One of many reasons that your attitude can affect your health is that a bad attitude can drive other people away. And interaction with other people is vital for your health. Human beings are social animals. So it’s no surprise that people thrive when they have good relationships with friends, family, and people in general. More surprising, perhaps, is that these relationships can also affect physical well-being — and not just because being nasty to your doctor or shouting obscenities at her receptionist will keep you from getting optimal treatment.
Psychologists call our network of relationships with others, including family and friends, one’s “social support” network.
The power of intense social support to help you better cope with physical illness goes above and beyond the powers of medications and other therapies. According to psychotherapist Joan Borysenko: “The [scientific] literature says clearly that although good habits are important — eating right, exercise, not smoking, etc. — none are as important as high self-esteem and the ability to give and receive love and to develop intimacy with other humans.”
How Social Support Helps
An ever-mounting number of large-scale studies have linked social support to specific health effects. Among the most intriguing are studies linking social support (either in the form of organized groups or one-on-one support) to longer survival time for women with breast cancer; higher levels of natural killer cells (a sign of a stronger immune system) in people with certain cancers, and increased mobility and reduced swelling of joints in people with rheumatoid arthritis.
Many studies also show lower Caesarean section rates, shorter labor, and decreased need for anesthesia in women who have a female companion experienced in labor and delivery — called a doula — accompany them through labor. Social support has also been shown to decrease depression after strokes; and perhaps even lower chances of developing heart problems and dying prematurely (especially in people who have a spouse or other confidant).
Despite these exciting findings, don’t be fooled into thinking that tea and sympathy alone can cure a serious ailment. But a strong support network may well boost the healing powers of a broader treatment plan.