Connecting Time – The Healthy Mind Platter (6/8)

Daily Life, Neuroscience, Theoretics

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Connecting time – The healing power of relationships

According to Matthew Lieberman, one of the founders of social cognitive neuroscience, our “evolutionary wiring predisposes us to be social,” actually causing a sense of physical pain if we are socially rejected. As such one could argue that social connection is a basic human need, very much like water, food and shelter. social support is a well-documented antecedent of wellbeing. A landmark study of Berkman and Syme found that the status and extent of social relationships predicts mortality over a 9-year follow-up after controlling for socio-demographic, physical health and health behavior variables. Based on these epidemiological findings, researchers have proposed specific relationships between interpersonal functioning, biological processes, and disease.

Cohen, Gottlieb and Underwood propose two processes through which social relationships affect health. One process involves the provision or exchange of emotional, informational, or instrumental resources in response to the perceptions that others are in need of aid. The other process focuses on the health benefits that accrue from participation in one or more distinct social groups. Others can influence cognitions, emotions, behaviors and biological responses in manners beneficial to health and well-being through interactions that are not explicitly intended to exchange help or support, for example to increased self- esteem, personal control, and conformity to behavioral norms that have implications for our health.

A review of 81 studies revealed that social support is reliably related to beneficial effects on aspects of the cardiovascular, endocrine, and immune systems. Social support has been associated with positive effects on various diseases, such as cardiovascular reactivity and blood pressure and depression. Reviews of the social support literature conclude that social integration and perceived emotional support are directly and positively related to physical and mental health, including lower mortality. The most powerful measure of social support is whether a person has an intimate, confiding relationship or not, typically with a spouse or a lover; friends or relatives function similarly but less powerfully.

“Pleasant words are a honeycomb,
sweet to the soul and healing to the bones”

solomon, 1000 B.C., Proverbs 16:24 -
Given that stress is an important cause of sleep problems and cognitive impairment, the buffering effect of social support on stress is pertinent to our discussion of the Healthy Mind Platter. Impaired social functioning may represent a form of stress that impacts physical health indirectly via emotional experiences and directly through physiological pathways. social support is one of the pillars of the job-demand-support model developed by Karasek and Theorell and adopted by the World Health Organization for predicting stress, cardiovascular disease and productivity. According to a meta-analytic review, social support has a threefold effect on work stressor–strain relations: social support reduces the strains experienced, mitigates perceived stressors, and moderates the stressor–strain relationship.

Cacioppo found that satisfying social relationships are associated with more positive outlooks on life, more secure attachments and interactions with others, more flexible autonomic activation when confronting acute psychological challenges, and more efficient restorative behaviors. individuals who were chronically lonely had elevated mean salivary cortisol levels across the course of a day, suggesting more discharges of corticotropin-releasing hormone and elevated activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical axis. Lonely individuals may experience higher levels of perceived stress, react more negatively to stress, and benefit less from social interactions. Lonely individuals experience less efficient and less effective sleep that may interfere with the restorative processes of sleep, another crucial element of the Healthy Mind Platter. In contrast to impaired social functioning, the perception that others are available to provide assistance and emotional support buffers the negative effects of stress on health.
The presence of positive social support reduces the likelihood of negative health outcomes in the wake of stressful events. In addition, the extent to which individuals actively participate in social activities and hold social roles prospectively predicts health outcomes.

Another interesting strand of research studying the interplay between stress, health and social support looks at the impact of neuropeptides like oxytocin. Oxytocin is an evolutionarily highly preserved nonapeptide released from the paraventricular nucleus of the hypothalamus through the posterior pituitary. In non-human mammals, oxytocin is a key mediator of complex emotional and social behaviors including attachment, social recognition, and aggression. Oxytocin reduces anxiety and impacts on fear conditioning and extinction. Heinrichs, Baumgartner, Kirschbaun, and Ehlert designed a placebo-controlled, double-blind study, in which 37 men were exposed to the Trier Social Stress Test and were randomly assigned to receive intranasal oxytocin or a placebo as well as social support from their best friend during the preparation period or no such presence of a friend for support. They found that salivary free cortisol levels remained low with social support in response to stress. The combination of oxytocin and social support exhibited the lowest cortisol concentrations as well as increased calmness and decreased anxiety during stress.

Oxytocin administration in humans was shown to increase trust, suggesting involvement of the amygdala, a central component of the neuro-circuitry of fear and social cognition that has been linked to trust. In their study Kirsch show that human amygdala function is strongly modulated by oxytocin. They used fMRi to image amygdala activation by fear-inducing visual stimuli after the intranasal application of a placebo or oxytocin. Compared with placebo, oxytocin potently reduced activation of the amygdala and reduced coupling of the amygdala to brainstem regions involved in autonomic and behavioral manifestations of reactive fear. Further, from our earliest days of life our connections to others provide a source of feeling seen, safe, and secure. Our profoundly social brains may require ongoing connections with close and reliable others in order to maintain the physiologic and emotional balance that such relationships establish from the beginning of life.

To conclude, the link between social support and health is well documented, but the exact neural mechanisms of social cognition in the human brain and the beneficial effects of social supports are complex and need further research drawing from a wide range of disciplines like social cognitive neuroscience, neuro-immuno-endocrinology and occupational health psychology.

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Source: NeuroLeadership Institute.

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