Strong Social Support Aids Physical and Mental Health

Canadian researchers have determined that a strong support network can actually make you healthier.

Jean-Philippe Gouin, Ph.D., a Concordia University psychology professor, followed a group of international students who experienced major social change following a move to Montreal.

Gouin found that those who managed to build a better support network were healthier overall. This conclusion was based on lower heart rates.

The study is published in the journal Annals of Behavioral Medicine.

Over a five-month period, participants responded to questionnaires that measured their social integration, as well as how lonely they felt. Gouin and his Concordia co-authors, Stephanie Fitzpatrick and Biru Zhou, also monitored participants’ heart rates to detect changes in what’s known as high-frequency heart rate variability (HF-HRV).

Variability in heart rate is a marker of how well your parasympathetic nervous system is functioning.

“Other research has shown that individuals with a lower heart rate variability are at increased risk for the development of poor health, including greater risk for cardiac diseases. Therefore, decreases in heart rate variability are bad for you,” Gouin said.

The study showed that immigrants who were able to form friendships and get involved in new social networks during their first five months in Canada had increases in heart rate variability, while those who remained socially isolated over time showed a decrease.

“In the weeks and months that follow a major move, people often find it hard to make new friends and establish a solid social network,” said Gouin.

“This study shows that such prolonged social isolation can have a negative effect on physical health by impacting our parasympathetic functioning. That applies not just to international students but to anyone moving to a new country or city or anyone experiencing major social changes.”

Gouin believes the study shows that if you find yourself in a new environment you should reach out to other people. “The more quickly you manage to integrate socially in your new home, the healthier you’ll be. It’s easier said than done, but it’s worth it,” he  said.

Source: Concordia University

Group of international students photo by shutterstock.