Hanging with your BFF reduces stress, increases altruism

Best FriendsA study in the current issue of Hormones and Behavior looked at the physical effects of social closeness on women. The results suggest that emotional closeness to a friend increases progesterone, a hormone thought to "boost well-being and reduce anxiety and stress." Stephanie Brown of the University of Michigan (the lead researcher of the study) paired up 160 female college students. She randomly assigned pairs of women to a task designed to elicit emotional closeness or to an emotionally neutral task (editing a botany manuscript). Progesterone levels were measured afterwards. The hormone levels of pairs who were involved in the emotional task remained stable or increased. A reduction in progesterone was found for pairs in the neutral group. Here's the interesting part: A week later, the pairs met again and played a card game with their original partners. The researchers then asked the participants how likely they'd be to risk their life for their partner. Higher levels of progesterone were linked to a greater willingness to sacrifice to help their partner. It was noted that previous research had linked higher levels of progesterone to a desire for social bonding, but this was the first study to find that the reverse was also true.

So it appears that spending time with a friend can increase levels of a hormone linked to well-being - but previous research suggests that these positive effects depend on what the friends talk about. Jennifer Byrd-Craven and her colleagues at the University of Missouri examined a behaviour they called "co-rumination" - extensive talk about problems, encouragement of problem talk, and the rehashing of problem details. Rumination, a coping strategy that is more likely to be used by women than men, has been proposed as a factor that makes it more likely for women to become depressed than men. When friends talked about problems, there was a different change in hormone levels - an increase in cortisol, the stress hormone. Chronically high levels of cortisol have been linked to a number of health difficulties.

Together, these results suggest that emotionally close relationships might reduce anxiety and boost well-being, but friends who spend their time complaining about problems are likely to become more stressed. There's little doubt that social support is generally protective against stress (for example, support reduces cardiovascular reactivity in stressful situations). However, it's possible that becoming too focused on problems could have the opposite effect. How can you find a balance between obtaining support when you need some help without becoming more stressed out?

  1. It's important to monitor your feelings and to think about whether discussing your problems is dominating your time with your friend. Do you feel better after these discussions, or do thoughts about your problems continue and increase your stress level?
  2. Although problem-solving requires you to resist the urge to avoid the stressful situations, finding distractions can prevent the problems from having an ongoing impact on mood. Hopefully, you and your friend have some activities that you both enjoy that can provide a welcome break from problem talk.
  3. As usual, if you're worried about something and you can't seem to get it off your mind, talking it through with a professional might be helpful. Many therapists will encourage action to change your interpretation of the problem, which might make it less stressful. Instead of ruminating, you'll be taking some action to improve your mood!

You can read Brown's study here. Byrd-Craven's study can be found here.

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