Healthy Tahoe: The impact of relationships on mental health

Lindsay Simon, LMFT
Lindsay Simon

May is mental health awareness month and it’s important to address the impact that relationships have on our mental health.

We are a social species and built for relationships. Most people know from life experience that generally speaking when we don’t have healthy relationships we are miserable, and when we do have healthy relationships we are happy.

The health of our relationships (romantic, friends, community) directly relates to our mental health and physical health. It isn’t the number of friends you have, likes you get on social media, or whether you are in a committed relationship that matters, it is the quality of your close relationships that matter.

It is important as a society that we work on finding ways to strengthen and support our social connections, whether within our families, friends or community, in order to prevent and reduce negative mental and physical health outcomes.

Research shows that couples who are in satisfying relationships have lower rates of depression and stress, higher and stronger immunity to fight off viruses, higher white blood cell counts and live longer than couples in toxic relationships.

In fact, a study by Lois Verbrugge and James House from the University of Michigan found that being unhappily married can increase your chances of getting sick by 35% and shorten your life by an average of four to eight years. Living in a toxic relationship leads to increased depression, suicidal thoughts, and anxiety.

The data shows that being single is healthier than being in a toxic relationship, but not as healthy mentally and physically as being in a happy healthy relationship.

An 80-year study at Harvard University on adult development followed participants over their lifespan and the results were eye opening.

The results showed that peoples’ satisfaction with their family, friends and community was a better predictor of health than their cholesterol levels. The research also showed those in unhappy marriages reported more physical and emotional pain. Turns out, loneliness is as powerful a predictor of early mortality as smoking and alcoholism.

Healthy relationships had a positive impact on mood, memory, pain levels, and cognitive functioning. The influence of social relationships on health also impacts mortality more than physical inactivity and obesity. That means it can be more beneficial to your physical health to focus your energy on creating and maintaining healthy relationships than on focusing on exercising. Of course, ideally, both would be a focus.

So if I have convinced you that this is a good idea, what can you do about it?

1. Strengthen your partnership: prioritize quality time together each day and week. We want to get to a minimum of five positive interactions to every one negative. The happiest couples have about 20-40 positive interactions to every one negative.

2. Strengthen your family and friends: Make a commitment to call and reach out regularly. Make a commitment to reach out to someone every day, repeat as many times as needed.

3. Increase Community Involvement: A quick google search can find you volunteer opportunities in the community. Find social activities with like minded people.

It is worth the time, pushing through the hurt and fear of rejection, to keep reaching out and putting effort in to get the positive outcome of strong relationships.

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