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Maia Szalavitz
Maia Szalavitz

Friends (and Family) Are the Best Medicine

We learn to handle stress from our parents during infancy.

For years we've been told that the best ways to reduce stress are things like exercise, meditation and relaxation. But this advice misses what may be the most important source of stress reduction: relationships. And today, yet another study was released that shows just how critical human contact is for health. Reviewing the results of 48 earlier studies including over 300,00 people, it found that those with strong relationships have a 50% lower risk of mortality than those who are isolated and without social support.

As the authors point out, that's as large a benefit as people get from not smoking.

Why should this be? As we describe in much greater detail in Born for Love, we learn to handle stress from our parents as they nurture and interact with us through physical affection as infants. Thus, our stress systems are first wired such that "Mommy" or "Daddy" reliably relieve stress. Anyone who has seen a baby light up when a parent returns from a night out has seen part of this process in action.

Even an 80-year-old will experience lowered blood pressure if his 100-year-old mother is there to hold his hand. Now, obviously, there are exceptions in terms of abuse-but even the most severely abused children still take some comfort from their abusive parents. That's one reason abuse can be so damaging: it can actually wire in a response in which abuse is associated with stress relief.

Consequently, because the link between human contact and stress relief is so primal, it's not surprising that supportive friends and family have so many health benefits. As we grow up, we learn to connect other social contact with stress relief, generalizing from our early experience and learning to take pleasure in being in touch.

But when children are exposed to extreme stress early in life (especially without these modulating forces) there is a dramatically increased risk for high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, stroke-and every mental illness that has been studied, including addictions.

These studies emphasize that these effects last a lifetime-and that in many cases, friends truly are the best medicine. If you want to be happy and healthy, learning to empathize and connect is critical.

About the Author
Maia Szalavitz

Maia Szalavitz has published five books and written for The New York Times, Time magazine online, New Scientist, Psychology Today, and other major publications.