What You Need To Know About Friendships And Your Health

By Anna Redman

They say that people come into our lives for a reason, a season, or a  lifetime. But regardless of how long the people you befriend will be pit stopping, when it’s their time to shine it can feel as though they have an endless power over your emotions and your health. And while you may not spend a lot of time closely examining your friendships, science and experts reveal that there’s a lot more to these close connections than merely gabbing over coffee, giggling through mani/pedis, or gasping side by side at the gym. “A good friend is like good medicine,” says Melanie Ross Mills, PhD, author of The Friendship Bond and The Couples Bond. “It is vital to your health to have a trusted friend who is a safe outlet to vent, share, trust, and lean on.” But it’s also vitally important that you pick the right person. Here’s everything you ever needed to know about great friends, why we need them, and how to walk away from frenemies.

The 411 On Friendships

From a very young age we are taught about the importance of friendship. Try to picture Winnie the Pooh without Piglet, Ariel without Flounder, or Snow White without the seven dwarfs. Before we can truly understand what friends are, we know that these bosom buddies will add happiness to our lives, help us solve problems, get us out of scrapes, and travel with us on epic adventures.

As we grow older and the make-believe fades away, our friendships grow and evolve to suit the new, more adult problems of our lives. With true friends by our side, we can survive it all: marriages, divorces, bills, babies, career changes, job losses — the list goes on and on. “Friendships continue to thrive in our society because people are created to bond, love, grow, and share their lives,” explains Mills, but if we’re left to deal with all of life’s trials on our own, we can see very different results. “Loneliness can lead to depression, suicide, increased stress, alcohol or drug abuse, and poor decision making, among other things,” she reveals.

And there’s a lot of science to back her up. Studies have found that lonely adults are less likely to exercise but more likely to eat fatty foods, suffer from sleep loss, and drink excessively. And don’t think that social media can solve these weight and workout woes. “Research is showing that people are still feeling disconnected and lonely,” even if they are interacting on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, shares Mills. It looks like old-fashioned, in-person friendships are the only solution, and, according to Mills, these connections with other people will not only nix loneliness, but will also improve your overall health. “As a person experiences healthy friendships, they also experience a healthier mind, body, and spirit,” she explains.

Live Your Best Life

So how do friends improve your overall well-being? Several studies have found evidence to suggest that a supportive social network can play a crucial role in helping you survive some serious health hurdles.

In 2006, a group of San Francisco scientists released research indicating that breast cancer sufferers were 66 per cent more likely to die from the disease if they were socially isolated.

Aussie researchers also found the medicinal benefits of friendship. Following a 10-year study, it was determined that those who maintained a strong social network as they aged had a much higher chance of living a longer life. After examining almost 150 studies, a meta-analytical review from Utah and North Carolina also drew similar conclusions to the Australian study, suggesting that people reduced their risk of death by 50 per cent if they had strong friendships and regular companionship.

Why Workout Buddies Work Wonders For You

But what about the here and now? It turns out that a strong friendship can also be the key to achieving those goals you’ve found insurmountable on your own. “Friends are the best motivators — when they have your best interests in mind,” Mills points out. It’s important to choose a friend who isn’t easily threatened, competitive, or envious if you’re relying on them to help you reach your goals.

“Working out with a friend can provide a well-rounded realm of support,” continues Jennifer Ettinger, fitness and lifestyle expert and ambassador for New Balance Canada and Vitamix. “It can be as simple as riding together to the gym, but that one action can provide you with an additional level of accountability.” Now that gym visit isn’t just about your goals; it’s about someone else’s, too. “You have the power to hinder their goals by not owning your role in the buddy system,” Ettinger informs.

You may also want to focus on adding a few fit friends to your social circle. Harvard researchers have suggested that obesity can spread through social ties, while additional research from California indicates that people are prone to mimicking the behaviour of those around them, so spending time with like-minded individuals could help you reach your fitness goals that much faster!

How To Make More

If you’re gung-ho about adding some new faces to your circle of friends but aren’t really sure how to get started, here are a few basic stepping stones to get you on the right track.

First of all, you need to work on becoming an example of the type of friend you hope to attract. “As you develop the character traits that you would like to have in a friend (e.g. trustworthiness, patience, kindness, etc.), you will find that you look for these traits in people you spend time with,” Mills says.

Your next step may require you to move outside your comfort zone. “Make an effort to reach out to the people you are drawn to,” Mills advises. “Ask them to hit Starbucks, grab a drink, or try a workout class,” whatever you feel comfortable offering. “It’s alright if they do not reciprocate,” she adds. “You won’t be on everyone’s desired ‘friend list,’ and it’s always better to be a friend cultivator rather than a friend collector.” And just a friendly reminder (get it?) — you don’t always have to make the first move. Sometimes people around you could be reaching out and trying to make the same effort, so keep your eyes open and your friendship feelers out.

If all else fails or if you really, truly want to expand that social circle, make yourself try something new. It’s easy to become comfortable with your regular routine and develop a fear of being rejected, but a new activity can open you up to a group of people you wouldn’t have been exposed to otherwise. “You never know unless you try,” Mills encourages. “Look for community events, gatherings, or groups that interest you,” she suggests. “Volunteer at your local hospital, church, or charity and set a goal to talk to three new people. See where it takes you.”

Bad-News Besties

It’s extremely important — and healthy — to continuously expand your social circle, but as you add new names to your contact list, it might also be time to consider a purge. “A toxic friendship can be incredibly detrimental to your well-being,” warns Mills. “If you are engaging in a co-dependent friendship, compromising your own values, or taking on another person’s problems, it can lead to some serious health concerns.” Internal stress, disillusionment, loneliness, paranoia, denial, and low self-worth could all be coming your way, she cautions, each of which can lead to critical health issues, so back away from friends who over-withdraw from your emotional ATM. You only have so much to give, and if they never make deposits at this friendship bank it may be time to close the account — for the sake of your sanity, and your health.

Breaking Up Is Hard To Dp

Whether it’s a boyfriend, girlfriend, or best friend, breaking up is never easy, but sometimes it has to happen. If you feel like your bestie has a little too much in common with Regina George and that your mood always hits rock bottom whenever you two get together, it might just be quitting time. But be cautious about how you cut ties, and take a few things into consideration first. “If this person isn’t entirely avoidable (like a co-worker), then discernment and wisdom are paramount,” warns Mills. “It might be wisest just to keep your distance and remain silent.” Alternatively, if this person is avoidable and you believe that they could benefit from hearing your grievances, a deep and soulful talk may be in order. “Explain why you feel this friendship isn’t healthy for you anymore,” suggests Mills. As strange as it might sound, highlighting your problems could make you a blessing in disguise for this soon-to-be ex-friend. Some of your pointers could show them the changes they need to make in order to experience non-toxic friendships. Just be careful not to burn your bridges — you never know when you could run into one another again.

Tags: Anna Redman
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