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Strong relationships and immune health, linked?

Did you know that having strong relationships is just as powerful for the human body as having adequate sleep and a good diet?

Research shows that people with strong relationships are happier, have fewer health problems, and live longer. And on the flip side, a lack of strong relationships or social ties is associated with mental health issues and increased mortality*.

In addition to the great health benefits of having strong relationships, they can also help us to get through difficult times and deal with adversity.

 

At the moment you may be working from home, you may be at your place of employment, you may be retired, you may have children and family at home, or you may be by yourself. Unfortunately, some of you may have lost your job or your income.

With all of these combinations and permutations, it’s not surprising that many of us will feel that our lives have been turned upside down. There can be many different reactions to this, including fear, panic, anxiety, calm, hopeful, angry, fretting, alone and missing family, friends and colleagues. Some may feel they have no purpose.

But one of things that we can do to support one another is by attending to our relationships and building on them to make them strong, positive and uplifting. 

The health benefits of strong relationships

Research discussed in a Harvard Health article states that: 

  • strong relationships can help relieve harmful levels of stress which can negatively affect the body and immune system
  • caring behaviors trigger the release of stress-reducing hormones
  • midlife women in highly satisfying marriages had a lower risk for cardiovascular disease compared with those in less satisfying marriages
  • couples experienced reduced immunity during hostile marital conflict
  • dementia risk was lowest in those with a variety of satisfying relationships

There are a variety of relationships that we may have - our couple relationship, children-parent relationships, family relationships, friend relationships, work relationships, neighbour relationships, online relationships, religious and/or spiritual beliefs and relationships, and of course our relationship with ourselves!

Strengthening all the relationships in our lives can have great mental and physical health benefits.

So, how can we strengthen our relationships?

Strengthening your relationship with yourself 

Connecting with yourself is important, as we can’t be there for others unless we are mindful of our own thoughts and needs first. Here’s five tips to strengthen your relationship with yourself (and you can find more here!)

  • If you are finding it difficult to find a purpose in your day, every morning write yourself a list of things that need doing and things you’d like to do, even things as simple as: 1) get out of bed, 2) have breakfast, 3) have a shower, etc. Mark them off as you complete them!
  • Set five to ten minutes aside a few times a day. Take a few deep breaths while focussing on the air coming into and out of your lungs and body. Ask yourself, how are you feeling right now? Where can you find that feeling in or around your body? Turn your attention towards it. As you do, does it give you any information? Take your time to be curious about it. What is its job in being there? Is there anything it needs from you at this moment? See if you can give it what it needs. For example, if you’re feeling stressed, you may be tensing your shoulders. You could place a warm heatpack over your shoulders to relax the muscles and relieve some of this stress.
  • What is something you would love to do at home that you’ve never given enough time to e.g. gardening, reading, online courses, painting, reading books to your children, playing family games, dreaming up your next holiday, rearranging the furniture, learning  a language online? Allocate time for it in your plan for the day.
  • Follow exercise or pilates routines on YouTube.
  • Have a party online with your friends. Explore how you can do this (e.g. through video conference).

 

Strengthening your couple relationship

Now for some handy tips on strengthening your relationship with your significant other:

  • Prioritise time to have a discussion on how things may need adjusting at home.
  • Discuss how you would like to be/act towards each other in your relationship at this time, e.g. kind, patient, positive, forgiving, open. 
  • What are your individual needs that you can support each other in to make the relationship a solid supportive place to be with one another emotionally?
  • Discuss your work arrangements (employment and/or house work). Talk about each of your needs first (wants later if possible) in order to have peaceful, predictable work time and space.
  • If you have children, how will you make sure they are given attention and looked after during this time. How will you both balance keeping connected with them and managing working at home and knowing how they are going? 
  • Is there anything you need to stretch personally, in order to work as a strong cooperative and supportive team?
  • Allocate time every couple of days to appraise how things are working. E.g. if you have children at home and working, how are you juggling these responsibilities and supporting each other in their work? Use ‘I’ statements when talking about yourself, making it an intimate statement of your feelings, thoughts, values and requests. You can use this as a template, so to speak:

    “I feel (emotions only) … when … (describe the behaviour without using ‘you’) because … (share your beliefs, opinions and interpretations) and what I’d appreciate is ...

    Here’s an example in practice: “I feel distracted and uneasy when the house is a mess and I’m trying to work and concentrate here at home. Particularly when wet towels are left on the bathroom floor, because I like order around me when I work so I can relax and concentrate. I also believe it’s a team effort. I’d really appreciate it if we could both pay attention to picking up after ourselves so then I can relax and give more attention to my work. 
  • Make a time to connect for fun and intimacy. A film, a massage, a shared bath, sex, board games, exercising together, a walk, or learning something together are some good suggestions!
  • Interview each other about your hopes and dreams for the future, as an individual and as a couple. Why are those hopes/dreams important to you? How did they come about? How can I help to bring yours about?
  • Do the ‘Five Love Languages’ quiz online for an ‘analysis of your emotional communication preference’, and share the results with your partner. Now write a list of 20 things that, if done, would make you feel loved by your partner. Explain this list in detail to each other and then swap your lists! Take action on the items, and speak their language.
  • Check out how each of you are handling the day-to-day shifting sands of what’s happening in the outside world. Allow each other to share and explain without discounting each other’s feelings. 
  • Discuss how you want to support extended family and friends, particularly those elderly family members, or those alone or unwell at this time.

 

Strengthening your relationship with your children

Children and young adults may experience difficult emotions as a result of isolation, change of routine and fears of what’s happening in the outside world. So fostering a strong relationship with your children is important for both of you.

  • Make a point of spending time with each of your children every day. Find out how they are feeling. Validate them.
  • Playing, chatting about what’s on their minds, expressing affection, picking up on and naming things that you see as their strengths, asking them what they consider their strengths are, and how would they like to nurture these and/or nurture the things they’d like to be skilled in.
  • Build a cubby house in the lounge together.
  • Tell them stories of your younger years and share what being their age was like when you were young. E.g. what was around, what you did for fun, what you did at school.
  • Look through family photo albums and share your fond memories of them.
  • Ask them curiosity questions. Do you know their favourite colour, piece of clothing, food, part of the home, holiday location, family celebration, memory, or subject at school? Ask them why their favourite things are their favourite!
  • Put on concerts for the family.
  • Have a karaoke evening.
  • Sing or hum to your babies.
  • Give lots of hugs for all.
  • Each member of the family receives a massage from the rest of the family. Could even sit in a circle and massage each other's shoulders at the same time!
  • Have a family dinner party, with each making a different part of the meal. Have your favourite foods. Dress up or dress down (pyjamas or silly clothes!). Watch a family film or play a game afterwards.
Strengthening your spiritual connection

Fostering a strong spiritual connection in your life can have great benefits on both the mind and the body.

  • Take time to pray and connect, whatever that is for you. You can do this by yourself, or join up online or over the phone with someone or a group. 
  • Every day be mindful of what you are grateful for.
  • Who is in need of your prayers or loving energy at the moment? 
  • How can you be a positive presence for all those in your life and outside your circle?
Strengthening your relationship with friends and colleagues

While we may be stuck in the home due to physical isolation, you can still remain social using a great variety of different methods!

  • Keep connected through texts, emails, facebook, Whatsapp or other online means. How are they going and coping? Do they need anything?
  • Write them a friendship letter or appreciation letter.
  • Send funny videos, inspiring sayings or talks.
  • Play online games with them.

 

These are only some of the many people or things in our lives who we have connections with.

Think about who is important in your life? And what steps are you going to take to strengthen relationships with them?

Your health and the health of others can be built and regained through being positively connected with people who matter to you. This is an investment for all your futures, and perhaps a new way of making and prizing time with each other. 

One more thing - don’t forget that a sincere thank you and smile to the person serving you at the supermarket can make a big difference in their day (and yours)!

 

Mary, Relationship Educator | Liz, Communications Coordinator

 

Read more:

*The health benefits of strong relationships - Harvard Health Publishing

03 April 2020
Category: News
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