Friendships can affect your health in good ways and bad


Worldwide research shows that having social connections is one of the most reliable predictors of a long, healthy and satisfying life.

The American Psychological Association reports that at least 38 studies have found that adult friendships, especially high-quality ones that provide social support and companionship, significantly predict wellbeing, and can protect against mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.

Licensed clinical social worker and therapist Karen Mattern, who practices in Vero Beach, says that friendship is found across all societies and dates to the earliest times of history.

“People had to cooperate to fill a common goal and to provide assistance to each other to basically survive,” she says. “That was the origin of friendship.”

Mayo Clinic says friends can help you celebrate good times and provide support during bad times, preventing isolation and loneliness, and give you a chance to offer companionship to others, as well. Friends can also:

  • Increase your sense of belonging and purpose.
  • Boost your happiness and reduce your stress.
  • Improve your self-confidence and self-worth.
  • Help you cope with traumas, such as divorce, serious illness, job loss or the death of a loved one.
  • Encourage you to change or avoid unhealthy lifestyle habits, such as excessive drinking or lack of exercise.

“Friendship helps us to feel a sense of belonging, to feel valued and affirmed and socially connected,” says Mattern. “It protects against loneliness, depression and anxiety.”

Loneliness has been shown to increase risk for heart attack, stroke and premature death.

We physically respond to friendship in countless ways. Since having a friend can help change how we respond to stress, blood pressure is lower. Having a friend by your side while completing a tough task keeps your heart rate at a healthier level.

Medical News Today says that studies have shown that strong friendships can lessen risk factors for poorer long-term health, including waist circumference, blood pressure and inflammation levels.

Emotional support plays a big factor in this. Having somebody to listen, validate feelings and be a positive distraction is an important structure in modern life, alongside the encouragement and support to adopt healthier behaviors and improve health outcomes.

Not every potential friendship is a healthy one, however. Toxic “friendships” can be just as destructive as good friendships are beneficial.

Mattern says the danger of toxic friendship is that someone can bring elements of dysfunction and unhealthiness into the relationship.

“It opens us up to real emotional abuse which leads to depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and low self-worth. How do you know if you’re in a toxic relationship?” she asks. “Do you feel unsupported, drained, anxious, sad, and strained most of the time when you’re in that person’s company? A toxic friend can’t be happy for you, doesn’t have your best interests at heart, constantly criticizes you and lacks boundaries; you can’t be your authentic self around them.”

It’s important to set boundaries with friends. You should:

  • Begin by saying how you value the friendship.
  • Communicate your boundaries simply and clearly.
  • Express your needs, wants and limits.
  • Don’t apologize or make excuses.
  • Be firm, but also kind.
  • Remind your friend you care about them.

Why do people stay in toxic friendships? Psychology Today says there are as many reasons as there are bad relationships. They include:

  • You fear being alone.
  • You’ve already invested a significant amount of time and energy in this friendship.
  • You are holding onto hope about your friend’s potential rather than the actual person in front of you.
  • You attach some of your worth to the friendship.
  • You have been conditioned to over-function in a relationship or friendship and fix, save or fight for it at the expense of yourself.

Mattern adds that sometimes friends stay connected because of a historical event between them even though they may have changed over time and don’t share the same values anymore.

Gaslighting is an example of an extreme form of manipulation. Though we associate it with dating most commonly, it happens in friendships, too. The term “gaslighting” was coined from a 1938 British play called “Gas Light,” in which a husband manipulates a wife into thinking she is crazy by slyly changing the intensity of the gas lights in their home when she is left alone. He does this to try to make her believe she cannot trust herself or her memory.

In friendship, it’s a form of control or manipulation to keep someone else in an emotional prison and it can seriously affect their mental health. Constant gaslighting can make you doubt yourself, your memory and your sanity. It can seem that the “truth” is only what the gaslighter says is true.

The old saying goes, “Want a friend, be a friend.” Mattern says that healthy friendship is a mutually supportive process that makes both parties feel good and includes mutual support in good times and bad and caring for each other despite differences. Other traits of a healthy friend include:

  • Honesty
  • Loyalty
  •  Being present and supportive
  •  Encouraging growth
  •  Reliability
  •  Caring and compassion

Mattern says that friendship is about quality, not quantity – the opposite of social media where the goal is to have as many flowers as possible. “It’s all about who’s there to hold your hand when you’re upset – that’s a cornerstone of real friendship.”

Karen Mattern, LCSW, received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology and Economics from the University of Denver and a master’s degree in social work from Barry University. She is ABD (all but dissertation) in her work on a doctorate degree in Social Work at Barry University. She is a member of the National Association of Social Workers. Her practice, Coyle & Mattern, LLC, is located at 2770 Indian River Blvd., Vero Beach. The phone number is 772-569-9300.

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