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Healthy Relationships - an Essential Part of our Wellbeing

2/14/2012 8:00:00 AM
Written By:
Bronwyn Robertson

Good relationships are good for our health, according to the American Psychological Association and the National Institutes of Health. Having positive, supportive relationships can prevent illness by boosting the immune system, lowering blood pressure, and reducing our stress level. Research shows that merely being in the presence of caring, supportive people can lower our cortisol levels. Cortisol is a hormone that floods the body and brain when we're under stress. In the short term, it can be beneficial by increasing energy, activating muscles, decreasing sensitivity to pain, and elevating heart rate. Long term elevation of cortisol levels, however, leads to a number of health and mental health problems including high blood pressure, chronic pain and inflammation, decreased memory and attention, impaired problem solving, anxiety and insomnia. Brain imaging studies indicate that chronic elevation of cortisol may actually shrink the hippocampus, a structure in the brain that coverts short term memories into long term memory.

Healthy relationships promote the release of beneficial hormones and brain chemicals.  One such hormone and brain neurotransmitter is oxytocin. It is released when we bond with significant others or hug our children or even pet our pets. Studies have shown that oxytocin elevates mood and self-esteem, and decreases physical pain. The release of oxytocin also has a calming effect and enhances the experience of empathy and emotional connection, according to research conducted by the University of California at Berkley and University of Southern California.

Feeling connected with others is good for our brain. We are actually "wired" to experience empathy, love and compassion, according to noted neuroscientists Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin and Daniel Siegel at UCLA. Whether we are directly experiencing positive interactions with our loved ones or merely observing other people engaged in kind, compassionate behavior, areas of our brain associated with positive emotions, insight, and creativity are activated. The experience of love, compassion and emotional connection not only elevates our mood but also improves memory, learning and problem solving.

As noted by neuroscientist Daniel Siegel, the relationships that begin in infancy can have a life-long impact. Being nurtured and loved by one's mother as an infant promotes the healthy development of brain cells and the nervous system, and strengthens the immune system. Several recently published studies have highlighted the health effects of receiving positive parenting as a child, such as the prevention of hypertension, diabetes, stroke and mental health disorders.

Our relationships, how we connect with others, has a profound effect on our physical and mental health. Feeling love and compassion helps us feel connected with others, can heal our physical and emotional pain, improve our memory and mood, and enhance our overall wellbeing.

Bronwyn Robertson is a licensed professional counselor with more than 20 years' experience in private practice and community agency service. She specializes in the treatment of anxiety, stress, trauma, panic, chronic pain, and depression. She works with children, adolescents, and adults, and individuals with intellectual disabilities. Bronwyn utilizes positive psychology, cognitive behavioral and expressive therapies, and mindfulness-based practices to help others overcome obstacles, manage challenges, and tap into their unique potential for healing and personal growth. Bronwyn is an Adult Outpatient Therapist at Colonial Behavioral Health and also in private practice with Parker, Schlichter and Associates.

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