Each year as we bid the winter months goodbye, my family's social calendar in our small mountain town ramps up with sports practices, impromptu get-togethers with friends, and community gatherings. It can feel like we're coming out of hibernation, seeing our friends more regularly after the low light and increased time at home that comes with winter.
I cherish that extra time with my family, but I'd be lying if I didn't admit to feeling a bit of cabin fever each winter in the Rockies. By the time spring rolls around it's not uncommon for me to feel a bit of conflict and frustration in my relationships. Spring is the perfect time to take stock of my connections with family and friends, clear out some of the cobwebs, and foster authentic exchanges with the people in my life.
We Were Born to Connect
Beyond our desire to be the best parent, partner, friend, and employee that we can, putting energy into our relationships has some powerful health benefits. According to couples' therapist Harville Hendrix, Ph.D., “Connecting is our deepest desire, and to lose it is our deepest fear.” He is not just referring to the connection we feel with our partner but the connection we feel in any of our relationships—child, sibling, co-worker, etc. It is our human nature to connect and Hendrix says that when we are not connected in relationship we experience anxiety. Anxiety, in turn, makes us feel irritable, defensive, short-tempered, depressed, paranoid, etc. Everyone ends up suffering.
The health of our relationships is key to our wellness—literally! We don't just mentally want connection, our physical body thrives on it. Experiencing positive connection with another person has a direct effect on the body and on health. It is a powerful healing agent for the body because it triggers the release of a hormone called oxytocin—often referred to as the “love hormone”. It is released during pregnancy, birth and infancy, but also more generally as a result of positive interactions and when receiving psychological support. High dose busts occur with skin-to-skin contact, like hugs, snuggles, love of a pet, and sex (orgasm in particular).
Once present in the body, oxytocin:
- decreases stress, anxiety and depression. The stress hormone cortisol is reduced, along with our blood pressure response to anxiety-producing events.
- decreases cellular inflammation and improves heart function.
- reduces cravings of drugs, alcohol, and sweets; increases sexual libido; enhances immune functioning; and promotes sound sleep.
- fosters generosity. There is a cyclical effect with oxytocin: when we connect with others our body releases oxytocin, which then fosters more connection and generosity, which in turn keeps the oxytocin flowing, and the cycle advantageously continues. Check out this powerful TED Talk on the role of oxytocin in trust, morality, and generosity.
We have the power to make those advantageous cycles a regular occurrence. Just as powerfully, we can let the negative dominate our perspective and damage our health.
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Here are three key concepts that will help strengthen your relationships:
1. What We Focus On Grows
Let's think about it from a neurochemical perspective. When I focus on the my husband's annoyingly loud chewing of crunchy food, for example, my blood chemistry balance shifts. Endorphins (peace hormones produced by the central nervous system and pituitary gland) reduce and cortisol (stress hormones released in the adrenal cortex) increase. Typically, my comment to him about his chewing will induce a defensive reaction from him, which then results in a change in his blood chemistry, replacing endorphins with cortisol. The cycle rarely stops here.
In contrast to the detrimental effects of focusing on irritations, focusing on positive elements of the relationship does not trigger an inflammatory response in the body. Rather it facilitates connection, release of oxytocin, and a general feeling of contentment and satisfaction. Talk about a win-win!
2. The Power of Authenticity and Vulnerability
Find those opportunities to foster oxytocin release and our relationships will all be hunky dory, right? Easier said than done, unfortunately. We have some powerful instincts for self-protection that are worth understanding first.
Deep down we all want to be fully seen for who we are, for our authentic selves. We desire this recognition from our partners, co-workers, parents, and friends. Yet we often fear that certain parts of our being are unlovable or unacceptable to others. And allowing our true, authentic self to be fully seen by others requires a certain level of vulnerability—which can be terrifying. Social worker and researcher Brene Brown has spent the last fifteen years studying vulnerability and authenticity. Vulnerability, she suggests, is having the courage to welcome uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.
Even while we crave connection on a cellular level, we still find ways to avoid vulnerability because of the risk involved. One of the best ways to role model vulnerability, and to create a safe space for our friends and family to be their authentic selves, is to take a good hard look at our communication skills.
More Reading: Fight Stress With Soul-Centered Self-Care
3. Improving Communication
Hendrix offers some foundational tips to help reduce the frequency and intensity of arguments and disconnect, and to increase our experiences of connection.
Safe conversation: To experience connection we require emotional safety, which can be created through deep listening and deliberate conversation.
- Listen intently to the other person's words and feelings and ask if you've understood correctly, mirroring their words back to them.
- Work hard to see the logic of their perspective, validating their experience. Everyone thrives on validation.
- Show empathy by relating to the feelings or experience that the other person is having.
Affirm and appreciate others: Find genuine opportunities to voice aloud what you appreciate others—the positive impacts from this intentional practice tend to spark chain reactions of gratitude, and it benefits you as much as the person you're appreciating!
Message me for a free chapter with more information on the deep connection between healthy relationships and physical health from my book Full Plate: Nourishing Your Family's Whole Health in a Busy World.
Let's chat on social: How have you noticed the relationship-health connection in your life?
1. Harville Hendrix, “The Nutritional Power of Relationship” lecture, Institute for Integrative Nutrition, New York, 17 November 2014.
Sarah Kolman is the mom of three boys, a Registered Nurse, an Integrative Nutrition Health Coach, and has a master's degree in Contemplative Psychotherapy. Her private practice as a health coach blends her experience and career as a nurse with her passion for nutrition and holistic wellness. She is the author of Full Plate: Nourishing Your Family's Whole Health in a Busy World.