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Exploring how social support aids physical health

come_together_banner"Hey! I don't think I authorized this!"

Regular readers of mine know that I'm not above using my own life or personal experiences to illustrate a point in my writing. That's why I didn't hesitate when I saw the opportunity to relate an anecdote about some ill-fated premarital advice my husband and I received before our wedding more than 20 years ago. It was a fun way to launch into my most recent article for Stanford Medicine magazine, which focuses on the importance of healthy social networks and peer groups. I did, however, forget to warn my hapless spouse before he began reading the published piece.

As I point out in the story, strong relationships like those you (hopefully) have with your partners, spouses and friends, are not only emotionally fulfilling, they seem to actually keep you healthy, help you recover more quickly and sometimes even endure deadly illnesses. As psychologist David Spiegel, MD, who has researched the effect of support groups for women with metastatic breast cancer, comments:

The power of group support makes tremendous sense to me. We are social creatures. Throughout evolution, we’ve relied on the ability of our relatively large brains to form connections with others and build networks of support that help us deal with threats, nurture our young and help us stay alive.

Pyschiatrist Firdaus Dhabhar, PhD, is working to connect the dots between social support (and the attendant depression and anxiety that arises in its absence) with biological parameters that directly affect our health. For example, he's shown that although short-term stress can be adaptive, helping us respond appropriately to sudden threats, chronic stress can have a much different effect. As he explains:

What we’ve proposed is the concept of a stress spectrum. On one end, there’s the ‘good’ stress that can be protective; on the other is the chronic ‘bad’ stress and disorders such as depression. Ideally we would all find ways to optimize our stress spectrum and avoid the bad stress that is associated with poor immune function and inflammation. One way to do that could be through maintaining adequate social support.

I was also privileged to include in my story the recollections of a woman named Jennifer MacLeod who was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in 1993. The graciousness with which she shares the story of her participation in one of Spiegel's support groups and the effect on her and her friends (most of whom died from their disease) is humbling. With a nod to my dear long-suffering husband, the stories we tell in the magazine are largely driven by the willingness of patients to share their experiences with you, our readers. I'm awed and grateful for the chance to write their stories.

Previously: Ties that heal: Stanford Medicine magazine examines relationshipsFirdaus Dhabhar discusses the positive effects of stressWhy stress might not be so bad and How loneliness can impact the immune system
Illustration by Brian Cronin

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