After a particularly fun evening with a small group of close female friends recently, I was reminded of how we have the ability to heal each other through words and loving kindness. There is plenty of research on the topic. In our local paper last week, I noted an article about the positive effect of empathic communication, specifically the simple conversation between close female friends. The reference does not mention it, but I think I could add that close friends usually means non-judgemental listening and supporting, and female implies empathy!
My sister-in-law used to call it “serious chatting”, her way of making time for visiting and socializing at sporting events, in and around the activity itself. It’s an enjoyable thing to do, for most of us… But did you know how much you are actually affecting your health through your verbal interchanges? Of course, some of you may say. You’re kidding! may be the response from others of you… especially from those of you who feel guilty unless you are doing something productive.
It turns out that our chatting with each other has been proven to promote health, especially emotional health. Now, not all of us can afford the luxury of a professional listener, nor do we need to. Just find yourself a friend… Actually, this is not as easy for some people as it seems, and is a challenge for people with depression, for example, who find themselves with no one to talk to. (I’m not saying they are necessarily alone, just that they have no one to talk to.)
The quality of how we interact with each other also has enormous impact on us. The word conversation should not be confused with mere talking, because an important component is the empathic listening part. Although I wonder if talking in itself, even if no one is listening or replying, is a healthy thing to do anyway? It is a fact that pet ownership promotes health, and anyone with pets knows that you talk to them, sometimes constantly…
Harsh words are profoundly damaging
As a very sensitive person, I find myself cringing in public places whenever I witness an unfriendly dialogue between family members. I find it appalling to observe older couples shopping together, for example, when the tone between the aggressor and the victim (and you thought I was going to say wife and husband) is chronically sarcastic, belittling or downright nasty. And sadly, for them and for others in the store, this is considered normal. Mothers and children are among the worst offenders. Even as I sit writing, I sometimes think I need to stay home so that I never witness the abusive talk between family members again in grocery stores or restaurants or malls. (And I am not talking about behavior that ‘normal’ people would particularly mind, but I certainly do. The emotional damage! I understand, but don’t condone, the sarcastic, ridiculing and abusive ways some parents speak to their young children. But I digress.)
Empathic exchange reduces anxiety
The recent study confirms that a warm and empathic verbal exchange between close female friends has a physiological effect that reduces stress. The talking, listening, and seeking to understand all contribute to the release of a hormone that reduces anxiety and improves mood. In other words, as other studies find, our human conversation is like primate grooming: strengthening social ties, reducing anxiety, making us feel happier!
So it becomes clear that the social side of human nature is a major component in overall health, as important as physical and emotional health. We need to talk to one another and we need to touch one another.
The effect of touch is … tangible
The classic studies of primates and their social interactions between individuals provide a natural laboratory for researching the impact of the quality of interaction on normal development. We need to touch each other, too: young mammals, including mice, grow or do not grow depending on the quality and frequency of human touch.
There is a lovely story of how the importance of touch was demonstrated in a North American hospital setting in the premature infant care ward. It seems that nurses were instructed not to touch the delicate tiny babies except when absolutely necessary, but that at one point, some of the babies began thriving at a more accelerated rate than the others. The investigation into why that was so revealed that the common denominator was a young nurse who did not follow the rules! She had observed that stroking the infant backs calmed the babies down, so that was exactly what she did on her shift when no one else was around. The babies on her shift were the ones that grew and developed faster and more healthily.
While I assume some of you are familiar with “Two hugs for survival” that was the bible in the eighties of the importance of physical contact, it doesn’t hurt to remind ourselves that we are social beings who depend on contact with others for our very survival.
Loving touch, loving words and an empathic connection go much further than enriching our lives: they are as important to our well-being as healthy food and exercise.
Yours in health,