Friends with Healthy Benefits

New studies reveal how our bodies are affected by positive communication.

   

You stare at your schedule and sigh. First stop: the principal's office at Junior's school to discuss his spitball prowess in class. Second: off to your doctor's to persuade her to give you another round of antibiotics for that lingering cold. After that, you've got lunch scheduled with your accountant to "discuss a little question the IRS has. It's nothing." The topper: both your son and daughter need a ride home from their respective soccer and Little League games - at the same time and from opposite sides of town.
Must be Monday.

But before you reach for the Ibuprofen or chocolate, take a cue from what the latest communication research says and grab a buddy or loved one instead.

Turns out those we love and befriend really do come with benefits-health benefits, that is. Recent studies have led to a greater understanding of the effect of positive communication-specifically in the cozy contexts of friendships and romantic relationships-on the body's biochemistry. Talking, writing, even e-mailing your main squeeze or good buddy prior to facing a stressful situation can help reduce the production of cortisol (the primary stress hormone) plus calm an anxious heart.

When we experience stress, potent chemicals race into the bloodstream like paramedics to the scene. "Basically, cortisol is the fight or flight hormone," says Perry Pauley, PhD., assistant professor at California State University, Fullerton, and expert in the areas of interpersonal, relational and health communication. "We found that people who interacted with a romantic partner prior to a stressful situation experienced what we called the buffering effect, meaning they produced less of an increase in cortisol and, therefore, felt less anxious during the event."

Bonus: Dr. Pauley and his colleagues found rapid, stress-fueled heart rates were also reduced for those who spoke with a romantic interest before a perceived crisis. Pauley's studies point to a correlation between interacting with those who make us go "mmm" and actual physiological effects, a discovery that heralds a new health defense beyond the boundaries of traditional medicine: communicate more with those you like and love and reap the healthy rewards.

Image Magazine spoke with Dr. Pauley and asked him to tell us all about the art of communicating to calm the pulse, lessen the often hair-rising effects of hormones, and even lower cholesterol. Is it really as simple as connecting with the objects of our loving affection when stress looms? Here's what the good doctor had to say:


Image: Isn't the fact that our friends and loved ones help us cope common knowledge? What exactly is new here?
Dr. Pauley: You're right, a lot of people instinctually know it makes you feel good to talk to someone you're close to or care about, but we're finding there are tangible things happening inside the body that make it rewarding health-wise.


In one study, for example, we asked people to talk to a friend or romantic partner for ten minutes prior to a stressful task; a second test group was not given that same opportunity. In regards to physiological responses-heart rate, blood pressure, and levels of stress hormones-we found that people who spoke with a romantic partner before the stressor measured less cortisol produced during the difficult tasks we put them through.


Image: Difficult tasks? Do tell.
Dr. Pauley: Actually, it was kind of fun. We had four activities. One was called the "cold pressor" test. The participants had to hold their arms in a bucket of ice water for as long as they could stand it, or for a maximum of two minutes-we wouldn't let them go longer than that, didn't want them to get frostbite.
We also had a color test where subjects had to ignore the written word on a screen and say the displayed color of the term instead. For example, the word "yellow" was projected in blue. It's really hard to say the color you see when you're reading a different one. Another task we had them do was working mental math problems, figuring complex equations in their heads. And finally, we showed them videos of couples screaming and shouting abuses at each other, several scenes that were difficult to watch.


Image: How did the interaction with friends or loved ones beforehand help?
Dr. Pauley: We used these procedures in four different trials and found similar effects in all of the studies. Again, for those who spoke with romantic partners prior to the stress tests, the hormone level of the stress-induced cortisol was reduced, and there was also a calming cardiovascular effect.
However, for those who spoke only to friends, we found a buffering in the cardiovascular effect only. In other words, whether they communicated or not to a friend beforehand, there was still the usual increase in the cortisol level to be expected during a crisis situation.


Image: But talking to a romantic partner beforehand reaped both benefits, correct?
Dr. Pauley: Yes, for the romantic partner conditions, the subjects exhibited the beneficial results for cardiovascular measures, plus experienced less of an increase in the cortisol or stress hormone. The calming effect, then, was two-fold.


Image: What other healthy side effects have your studies revealed?
Dr. Pauley: One recent study that gained some interest in the media was our reduction in cholesterol findings. We did a five-week trial with two groups composed of about 35 individuals each. The first week we tested the cholesterol levels of all participants to serve as a baseline. Then, during weeks two, three and four, each volunteer wrote a letter for 20 minutes. One control group wrote to an object of their affection; the other group wrote just ordinary, generic letters with no ties to a friendship or romantic relationship. At week five, we tested everyone's cholesterol levels again and found the folks who wrote affectionate letters, visualizing someone they loved, had a five percent lowering in total cholesterol.


Image: That's definitely a wow-factor result.
Dr. Pauley: Yes, in fact, we sent our research in for publication in a scholastic journal and the editor said such an outcome-tying a physical change to a communication stimulus-was so extraordinary, he asked us to do it again just to make sure our work was correct. We did run the study again using the same methods and got the same results, the same pattern of findings relating to the reduced cholesterol.


Image: What about folks who receive love letters? Certainly there's a feel-good factor of reading as well as writing an affection note - does the lowered cholesterol phenomenon work on them, too?
Dr. Pauley: That's a good question and one many of us in the field are asking. We haven't yet studied what physical health benefits result from receiving and reading love letters, but we will definitely be looking into that in the next two to three years. It seems to make sense that recipients would experience a positive reaction to affectionate correspondence, and that, in turn, could translate to positive physiological effects.


Image: Was gender taken into account?
Dr. Pauley: Yes, for the letter-writing study, we did include the participant's sex as a variable, and we found the resulting health benefits were equally true for men and women; the cholesterol was reduced by the same amount. But we recently did another, separate experiment with gender implications. In fact, this was the first one of these physiological studies where we did find a sex difference. For this project, the hormone we observed was oxytocin, often called the love hormone because it leads to feelings of bonding, closeness and sexual intimacy. Oxytocin also shows up in women during childbirth when the baby is ready to be released. Men carry the hormone, too, but in less amounts. We predicted that the women subjects would have the greater increase in the hormone after repeated communication with someone they loved, but to our surprise, there was more of an increase with our male subjects.


Image: What does that tell us?
Dr. Pauley: Well, all of our studies are based in a theory called Affection Exchange theory. The basic premise is that communication is grounded in evolutionary psychology. People learned to communicate affectionately in early human ancestry because of the positive things they experienced inside their bodies that increased survival. It created a kind of biological reward system, if you will, that, in evolutionary terms, guided our communication.
Even though we have a more conscious understanding today about how things make us feel, those same pathways still work in our body. The fact is, if you're expressing closeness about people you care about, you're not just making yourself feel better on a mental and emotional level, you're actually improving your physical health, regardless of whether you're male or female.


Image: What can each of us do today to reduce stress and cholesterol and kick up those groovy hormones?
Dr. Pauley: I think when we're stressed out a lot of people tend to withdraw, but our research shows that by engaging those around you and continuing to express affection can help you feel better, more than just sitting around and moping. Writing love letters is good, but even just sitting on the couch and talking to someone you care about can help you manage problems, reduce stress, and recover from a crisis more quickly.


Image: Wait-are you saying couch cuddling counts as "communication?"
Dr. Pauley: Absolutely. There's a strong nonverbal component to this research. A few of my colleagues presented a paper on a study where they had people manipulate the amount of times they kissed their partners. Two study groups were formed; one was told to increase their kissing rate while the other was instructed to keep to their normal amount. The researchers found a lot of those same stress-alleviating effects with the increased kissing group. They also did a blood lipid study and confirmed a reduction of cholesterol, similar to our research. So yes, there's a strong nonverbal communication effect.


Image: It certainly sounds like an enjoyable way to get healthy.
Dr. Pauley: Yes, actually, that's one of the fun things for me. A lot of this isn't groundbreaking stuff. People already know if it feels good, do it, but there are real changes happening inside you-hormone levels, heart rates, the rise and fall of cholesterol-that you have no control over. For centuries, people have been communicating and behaving in certain ways just because it feels right to them. Now we're answering the question of why it feels right.


Image: Any last words before we go forth and hug our way to better health?
Dr. Pauley: Just that if you have something on your mind or you're worried about a situation, you don't have to talk about the specific problem that's bothering you to gain the health benefits. You just have to be present. It's the cuddle, not talking about the problem, necessarily, that does the effect. So get on the couch and snuggle.

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