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Relationships and Their Impact on Health

For years I've been intrigued by the idea of a "healthy relationship". What does that mean? What does that look like? What does that involve?

Learning how to have healthy relationships is not something that we are taught in high school. It's not a part of our curriculum in undergraduate degrees. However, in Naturopathic Medicine, we are taught the impact that relationships can have on one's health. We understand that healthy and unhealthy relationships play a role on one's well-being, on our emotional status, on how we view ourselves and our perspective of the world. We learn what we call the "determinants of health", where we take into consideration inborn determinants, past medical determinants, and lifestyle determinants which all add up to our current picture of health or illness. Relationships can play a role on all three areas of our determinants, for instance; our relationships with our parents can impact our understanding or acceptance of our inborn determinants such as hereditary traits; our relationships can impact and even create our past medical determinants such as childhood trauma, stressful living environment, or malnutrition; and they can impact or are impacted by our lifestyle such as where we live, what we eat, what we do for fun, who we work with, and more. Additionally, our essential determinants such as diet, exercise, sleep, hydration, etc can be greatly determined by our relationships if we are in need of assistance, particularly children, elderly, inpatients, and potentially those with a disability.

You may have heard of the 8 decade long Harvard study on 724 men (and eventually their wives) that followed them since teenagers, observing their health and the factors that have played a role. What have they found? No matter the lows or highs in life, the income level, how hard one worked, whether they acquired fame or no fame, or even cholesterol levels, what matters in a long and healthy life as significantly as alcohol drinking and cigarette smoking? Our relationships. They found that social connections can help us live longer, stay healthier and be happier, where as isolation and loneliness can lead to declined brain function, early mortality, and poor memory (I'll include the study director's TED talk at the end of this post.)

However, it's not just about having relationships, it's about the quality and depth of those relationships. For example, they found a correlation between those that were close with their siblings and those that had healthier life outcomes. They believe this is because our siblings and immediate family members are ones we've spent the most time with and therefore have the opportunity to build a deeper relationship with. They also found that even if there were highs and lows within a close relationship, as long as that person was one they could count on, they still had the health benefits of social connections.

Other interesting findings;

  • poor relationships increased likelihood of depression, stress, anxiety, high blood pressure, stroke, heart attack, and weakened immune system

  • healthy relationships prolonged life expectancy, improved brain function and memory

It's also important to recognize the impact that our relationships have on other determinants of health; it's been shown that they can play a large role in determining the type of foods we eat, how much we eat, alcohol and drug use, activity level, mood and emotional stability, and even how we cope with life circumstances, which overtime these lifestyle factors can either make or break our health.

I believe that when we hear or read the word "relationship",we immediately think that means significant other, but the reality is we relate in many different ways to many different people throughout each and every day. We relate with our children, teachers, bosses, postal workers, drive-through employees, pets, baristas, lawyers, caregivers, doctors, ourselves, and so on. Even the smallest interaction can alter our mood or affect how our day, week, or life plays out. Your relationship with your real estate agent, for instance whether there is understanding, trust,and clear communication, could affect which homes you see and therefore which home you buy and live in. The relationship you have with your teacher could impact your learning in that class or even your future relationship to that subject and therefore the type of career you pursue. The positivity from the barista in the morning could affect how you manage the stress from traffic to work. As you can see, big and small relationships can impact our lives in many different ways, so relating is a skill that we must take time to understand and master.

Let's start by looking at 10 unhealthy tendencies provided by the One Love foundation so that you can begin to spot them in your relationships or even in your own behavior;

  1. Intensity; this can feel overwhelming and suffocating,like a lack of space, impatience, fast pace of intimacy, or lack of respect. Often mistaken for as love or passion.

  2. Isolation; be on alert when someone is pulling you away from your support system such as family members or friends, or when someone attempts to create doubt in your other relationships like your coworkers, parents, friends, as to make you more isolated from others.

  3. Extreme Jealousy; this can look like possessiveness and mistrust, it feels threatening and angry.

  4. Belittling; such as name calling, accusing you for overreacting, or you as the center of their. jokes.

  5. Volatility; this can come with lows and highs in the relationship, often feels like a rollercoaster and can include threatening behavior, hurtful comments, and broken promises.

  6. Manipulation; convincing you of something to get their own way, influencing your choices by gift giving, apologizing, or ignoring you.

  7. Deflecting Responsibility; having excuses for unhealthy behavior, not taking ownership for wrong doings.

  8. Guiliting; putting blame on you for their happiness, choices, or life circumstances. Threatening behavior so that you stay with them.

  9. Sabotage; spreading rumors to ruin your credibility or integrity, making you skip work or miss an important event

  10. Betrayal; such as cheating, lying, deceiving, or acting differently around others.

At the bottom of this post I also included a video by the Executive Officer of One Love, Katie Hood, who goes into more detail about 5 of those unhealthy markers and gives examples between the differences of healthy and unhealthy relationships. Unfortunately, it is often easier to see the flaws of others than it is to see our own, so try to take note of unhealthy behaviors you may have while listening to the video in order to improve your own impact on your relationships, as they will in turn impact you and your wellbeing.

Being aware of these can help us become more conscious of when we are participating in unhealthy behavior and/or when we are experiencing it. It takes time to make changes to these behaviors but awareness is the first step. It may be beneficial to seek assistance in making these changes or dealing with these unhealthy relationships, please do not hesitate to seek help.

Now that we looked at the unhealthy, let's take a look at what a healthy relationship involves;

  1. Trust

  2. Honesty

  3. Independence

  4. Respect

  5. Equality

  6. Compassion

  7. Responsibility

  8. Loyalty

  9. Communication

We can greatly improve our relationships by ensuring they include the above but also by;

  • Seeking to understand one another

  • Listening before speaking

  • Practicing gratitude for the good in a relationship

  • Savoring the good moments while they are happening

  • Encouraging one another to communicate without judgement

Now that you know how the quality of your relationships can impact your health, how to spot unhealthy relationships, and how to improve and create healthy ones, it's time to spread the word and do the work. Imagine a world where everyone was treated with kindness, compassion and understanding, isn't it fabulous? I agree! Let's do this, ya'll.

In Health,

Kierstin DeWitt ND, RAc

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