We all need our friends and family! Social relationships are as important to human health and happiness as food and shelter. Yet relationships can also have damaging effects. Interacting frequently with toxic family members, hanging out with unhealthy friends, or staying too long in an unhappy marriage may actually be damaging your health. Conversely, isolating yourself can create chronic stress and unhappiness that may hurt your health as well. Both the quantity and quality of your relationships are important to your long-term health and wellbeing.
The four scenarios below illustrate some relationship patterns that research has shown can be harmful to your mental and physical health:
Stressed by toxic families
Do you find yourself having anxiety attacks every time you make your annual trek back East to visit your in-laws? Do telephone conversations with your critical and demanding sister make you so frustrated that you start eating everything in sight? Do you feel drained and exhausted for days after your father and high-maintenance stepmother come to visit? Are you so frustrated that your spouse sits on the couch and doesn’t help with the housework that you turn to alcohol to cope? Does arguing with your disrespectful teen over household chores give you a migraine?
Social pressure to be unhealthy
As an adolescent, did you experiment with alcohol and drugs because you wanted to be part of the “in” crowd? Did you and your girlfriends obsess together about being thin and having perfect bodies? Did you bond by doing extreme diets together, making yourselves throw up after eating, or taking diet pills and laxatives to speed up the process? Do you down 6 or 7 drinks every Friday night when you and your friends go out and party, black out, then have a hangover for the rest of the weekend? When you visit your family for the holidays, do you end up gaining 5 or 10 pounds from eating all the cakes and goodies that your mom cooked specially for you?
Taking care of everyone but yourself
Do you find yourself so tired from taking care of a house full of kids or your elderly parents or immature spouse—that you collapse into bed exhausted at the end of the day? Have you given up exercise and healthy eating, and the last time you saw a doctor was years ago? Do you spend all day fantasizing about curling up on the couch at midnight with a bag of chips and a tub of ice cream after doing the last round of laundry? Do you forget to eat, or eat only at the computer because you are struggling to balance your job with all of your family responsibilities?
Social withdrawal and isolation
Are you a single parent so busy working and taking care of the kids that you don’t have a life of your own? Did you recently relocate away from friends and family because of your own or a partner’s job change and now feel socially isolated? Is your spouse so jealous or threatened by your friends and family that you hardly ever see them anymore? Do you spend most of your time on your own since your spouse or parent died? Are you so lonely that you feel like nobody would want to hang out with you, so you stop making an effort?
These scenarios illustrate four different ways in which social relationships (or lack of them) can be harmful to your health. Research shows that both the amount and the quality of your social relationships can affect many aspects of your health over months, years or a lifetime. People who are socially connected in large, close, and supportive networks of spouses, family, friends, and community groups experience strong health benefits, including resistance to disease, improved immune and hormonal functioning, less inflammation, better mental health, and longer lives. On the other hand, if your close relationships are chronically stressful, this may increase your long-term risk for heart disease and other serious illnesses.
How do relationships make you unhealthy?
Toxic relationships, stressful care-taking responsibilities, and loneliness can produce chronic stress that wears you down physically and mentally. Your immune system may become suppressed, you may experience inflammatory responses, or your body’s hormonal balance may get out of sync. You may experience chronic anxiety, depression, fatigue, or muscle pain. In addition, chronic stress may produce negative emotions that lead to unhealthy behaviors in order to avoid or escape these states. Stressful or demanding relationships may preoccupy your mind and consume your time so that you neglect your own health.
Another way in which relationships can negatively influence your health is by creating social pressure to engage in unhealthy behaviors like excessive drinking or compulsive dieting that, over time, can erode your health and happiness.
Relationships are important and we can’t live without them, but it’s important to evaluate whether by saying “yes”to others, you are also saying “no” to reducing your stress and maintaining good health. If this is the case, psychotherapy can help you learn new skills for asserting yourself and setting boundaries.