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The importance of social interaction to human health

Although social interaction is complex, I believe that it is vital to human health, both mentally and physically.

Many people find it hard to open their hearts and share their feelings and problems. However, social interaction where people can talk out their problems and feel accepted and understood is very beneficial to mental health.

When I was nursing my wife through cancer and knowing she would not survive, I kept my feelings to myself to be strong for my wife and child. The mental strain was causing stress headaches, trapped muscles, sleeplessness as well as mental anguish. I found a colleague who I could express my feelings to (which I had felt were selfish to admit to) and after regular talks and tears, my headaches and tension eased considerably. The stress was still there and got worse with the bereavement, but the physical and mental strain was never as overwhelming once I began to share with others.

Another way social interaction can help health is that it can challenge distortions that we often build up through our belief systems and experiences. I have found that when I was unemployed and living on my own in a new place, I was on my own for a lot of the time and things that were not normally significant took on much more importance and ideas/beliefs were distorted. When I returned to interacting with others in work, the things that caused annoyance or mild distress faded into insignificance. This is expressed really well in Totmans book Mind, Stress and Health as "Social support modulates the appraisal of stress and on its own helps to protect health by keeping the system toned up and vigilant against natural, ever present pathological inclinations."

Doctor McClintock, Director of the Institute for Mind and Biology, found that rats living in groups lived 40% longer than those housed by themselves and also recovered more quickly from illness. This experiment has been extended to comparing lonely and social humans and although the trial is still running, early indications show the lonely people don’t recover as quickly from illness, don’t sleep as well and have higher systolic blood pressure. The early trial conclusions state that social interaction helps people be healthier and live longer.

This has also been found in other studies including Cacioppo, who found lonely people show a number of adverse cardiovascular changes compared to people with friends. They have faster heartbeats, higher blood pressure and poorer sleep. So this closely mirrors McClintock’s findings.

There is also good evidence that social support has a favourable influence on a wide range of illnesses including heart disease, cancer, hypertension and respiratory disorders.

Social interaction is a complex process and I found it interesting that humans respond more quickly in groups but that more complex acts are hindered. People may damage their health if their main reference group exhibits dangerous behaviours (such as high risk behaviours like drug taking or stunt games). Also, there are occasions where a person has conflicting reference groups that strongly oppose each other. This can cause mental stress.

Also, some people such as hermits and recluses can lead healthy lives and overcrowding can cause ill health. Social interaction is good but nearly everyone values time on their own. I know that if I don’t get that time alone, my family’s well-being suffers!

However, good social interaction is a key part of living well. Study after study lists good friendships, family relationships and health as the most important things to have in order to be happy and fulfilled.

Good support can help protect against the harmful effects of stress by helping people cope better. Social interaction and support has been found to help cope with major life changes such as emigration, moving house, redundancy and bereavement. The complex nature of social situations makes it difficult to isolate social interaction as the only cause of improvements or protection of health. However, so many studies have found that social interaction has a major role in improving health and the fact that all folk cultures value this interaction is strong evidence of the power of social interaction.


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