I have spent decades helping women sort out natural solutions for achieving good health. I’ve talked often about the power of eating real food, exercising regularly, getting quality sleep and doing everything you can to reduce the stress in your life.
One thing I haven’t talked enough about can make a real difference: the power of friends you can count on. Most people understand that having friends who accept you for who you are feels amazing. Those friends are the ones you don’t have to hide anything from; your whole messy life is on display, and they love you anyway.
I have a friend, Jane, who recently told me that the two friends she’s had since high school (20 years ago) are the only thing keeping her going these days. Her stress levels have spiraled as she tries to manage teenagers, work, aging parents, and relationship difficulties with her husband. But a weekly zoom call with those two friends leaves her feeling refreshed and settled, ready to tackle another week.
That’s an amazing anecdote in support of having close friends. And there’s a body of research that suggests that cultivating these friendships can have tangible health benefits!
Studies have shown that adults who have strong social connections are at much lower risk of many major health issues, including depression, high blood pressure, and even unhealthy body mass index (BMI). Research has also shown that older adults with social support and meaningful relationships even live longer than those without.
For women, the research is even more fascinating. One study at UCLA showed the difference in the way women and men respond to stress. In women, this study found, there’s more than just a “fight or flight” response at play. In women, the oxytocin released in response to stress prompts them to stay and “tend and befriend.” This means they’ll focus on taking care of their children and seek out other women to gather with.
That’s really good news, since isolating yourself in times of stress can lead to even more issues, like depression and loneliness. Reaching out for support allows you to process your feelings and move forward.
This “tending and befriending” response actually leads to more oxytocin being released, and the estrogen released enhances the calming effect of this oxytocin.
That’s not the only study that provides some insight into the importance of friendship. One study in 1989 showed that women with breast cancer who received intense emotional support lived a year and a half longer than those in a control group. While small and somewhat controversial, this study was an early indicator of what later research has supported: social connections matter.
Harvard University’s Nurses’ Health Study found that women with more friends are less likely to develop physical impairments as they age, and are more likely to be content with their life. It also showed that the lack of friends can be as harmful to health as smoking and being overweight.
A strong social support system can lead to better quality of life, a stronger immune system, increased longevity, and more resiliency when life gets tough. Friends can help you feel more positive and optimistic, support you through trauma and loss, and help you feel like you belong.
If you aren’t lucky enough to have friends from way back, like Jane does, it can seem really difficult to connect and make new friends. It’s not as easy as it was when we were young – especially since society seems to encourage competition among women.
But with all the health benefits friendship has, it’s worth the effort! So how can you get started? Try these quick tips:
- Make strengthening your social ties a priority. Reach out to make plans with friends you’ve lost touch with or co-workers you think might share your interests.
- Take a class in something that interests you, and strike up conversations with the other participants. You’ll know you have at least one interest in common!
- Join a gym or find an exercise group in your community.
- Volunteer for a cause you are passionate about.
- Connect with family members. Sisters and cousins can make amazing friends!
- Don’t wait for invitations – extend them yourself!
- Take a walk around your neighborhood and stop to say hello to people you see. Or take the kids to the park and strike up a conversation with another parent.
Once you find people you begin to connect with, be sure to nurture those friendships. Think about how you want people to behave towards you, and show your new friends the same courtesy.
Friendship is not a one-way street. Show interest in their lives (without being too overbearing). Be kind, caring and open. Show that you are someone they can trust by keeping confidences and avoiding gossip. Follow through on commitments you make. And most of all – have fun with them! Nothing solidifies friendship better than shared joy and laughter.
No matter what age you are, it’s not too late to nurture new friendships – or revitalize old ones. It might just make you feel better than you have in years!
Reviewed by Dr. Mark Menolascino, MD