By John Salak –
Good or bad relationships can make or break a person’s day. There is probably nothing startling here for most people. What may be new is that social relationships not only influence feelings; but can also have a negative or positive impact on an individual’s physical health.
New research out of Australia and Michigan maintain that daily interactions can have a significant impact on stress, blood pressure, heart rates and depression. These impacts can also change daily in response to positive or negative social relationships.
“Both positive and negative experiences in our relationships contribute to our daily stress, coping, and physiology, like blood pressure and heart rate reactivity,” said Brian Don of the University of Auckland, the lead author of one of the studies. “Additionally, it’s not just how we feel about our relationships overall that matters; the ups and downs are important too.”
The Australian team developed its findings after tracking about 4,000 participants over three weeks through daily check-ins via their smartphones or smartwatch. The participants provided updates on their blood pressure, heart rate, stress levels and coping abilities. They also shared reflections on their closest relationship, detailing their positive and negative experiences.
Researchers found on average, people with more positive experiences and fewer negative experiences reported lower stress, better coping and lower systolic blood pressure reactivity leading to better physiological functioning in daily life. By contrast, those with negative relationship experiences like conflict reported increased stress, coping problems and overall systolic blood pressure. Some of these reactions may find their roots in the recent pandemic.
“Since the COVID-19 pandemic, relationships have been facing unprecedented challenges, turbulence, and change,” Don noted. “What this means is that the COVID pandemic may have health implications not just because of the virus itself but also indirectly as a result of the impact it has on people’s relationships. That is because the COVID-19 pandemic has created considerable strain, turbulence, and variability in people’s relationships; it may indirectly alter stress, coping, and physiology in daily life, all of which have important implications for physical well-being.”
The findings do not prove that relationships have physiological effects. More research is needed. But the research suggests that daily associations reveal how relationships and physical health are often intertwined.
Positive social support also was seen to be critical for those whose genetic makeup makes them more likely to develop depression, according to research out of the University of Michigan.
This research showed the importance of social support in buffering the risk of developing depression symptoms in general, using data from two very different groups of people under stress. These groups included new doctors in the most intense year of training and older adults whose spouses recently died. Support had a positive impact in all cases, but it had the largest impact on those whose genetic makeup raised their risk of depression.
“Our data show wide variability in the level of social support individuals received during these stressful times and how it changed over time,” said first author Jennifer Cleary, a psychology doctoral student at Michigan. “We hope these findings, which incorporate genetic risk scores as well as measures of social support and depressive symptoms, illuminate the gene-environment interactions and specifically the importance of social connection in depression risk.”
Genetic research’s ongoing work continues to reveal more of the DNA variation related to depression vulnerability. Yet the Michigan team stressed its work is focused on the crucially important understanding of how that variation leads to depression.
“Further understanding the different genetic profiles associated with sensitivity to loss of social support, insufficient sleep, excessive work stress and other risk factors could help us develop personalized guidance for depression prevention,” said senior author Dr. Srijan Sen. “In the meantime, these findings reaffirm how important social connections, social support and individual sensitivity to the social environment are as factors in well-being and preventing depression.”
More work is needed to flesh out Michigan’s initial findings. In the meantime, Cleary and Sen stressed that it is important for those going through or watching others weather stressful times to reach out and maintain or strengthen social connections. Both individuals can benefit.