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.
Loneliness and Isolation
Not only are studies showing that socializing can make you feel better — but plenty show that loneliness and isolation can be hazardous to your health (even though we all need a little “alone time” now and then). Adults with few social connections — especially those without spouses, close friends, family, church membership, or other group affiliations — have unusually high risks of dying at any given age. (On the other hand, having an unhappy marriage or getting divorced appears to threaten your health.)
Of course, social and emotional support may be helpful indirectly. If someone loves you, they’re likely to take care of you — scrub the toilet bowl for you, make sure that you take your meds and go to rehab, that sort of thing. Someone who loves you may also encourage you to take care of yourself: eat better, exercise, stop smoking, and so on. And just having that person around may motivate you to be better to yourself.
But even when investigators eliminate as many of these extraneous factors as possible, something about social ties alone seems to affect human health. Quite possibly, social ties help prompt the faith, hope, optimism, and other attitudes that may buffer you against stress. Evidence already suggests that strong social support alone is enough to reduce the output of stress hormones and boost the strength of immune cells (though no one — yet — has directly proved that these changes themselves make your health better).
Besides the possible health benefits that may come from company, here are some other benefits you may get from joining a support group:
- Coping skills for frustrations that come from living with a serious illness
- Ideas about new therapies and funding sources
- Assurance that you’re not alone
- A chance to turn off that “brave front” that you may maintain all day
- A chance to laugh
- A chance to cry
If you don’t have a strong support network at home, you can often find one through an organized group of people suffering from the same ailment as you are. Some groups are just a bunch of patients sitting around talking. Others are led by a doctor, nurse, or other health professional. Support groups also exist for spouses and children of people suffering from many different conditions.
If you can’t find a support group nearby, consider the many chat lines now flourishing on the Internet. You’ll find the same moral support and other benefits as in any face-to-face group.
Don’t take the advice from any support group member as gospel. However sympathetic — or even knowledgeable about a disease — no one except your personal health care practitioner is qualified to diagnose your particular condition or dispense treatment advice. But, by all means, go ask your practitioner about any good ideas you glean from the groups.