Life sciences like human biology can shed light on how our hearts and minds work together: how what we think and believe can affect our physical health, including how we feel. The relatively new fields of affective neuroscience and social cognitive neuroscience help us understand how and why we are driven by primal motivations to stay connected with friends and family. Recent advances have demonstrated not only how our brains are wired to connect with other people, but also how we can harness, these universal, cerebral mechanisms to better people’s lives.
The brain mechanisms, including the neural circuits and neurotransmitter systems, that underlie the acquisition and processing of social information are extremely complex and far from being completely understood. However, studies suggest a protective effect from the regulation of social attachment and promotion of positive social interactions that can induce physical, emotional and cognitive benefits.
Chronic stress and prolonged elevation of certain body chemicals are known to contribute to adverse effects such as immunosuppression, hypertension, and dyslipidemia. There is clear evidence from animal studies that persistent and repetitive stress can have deleterious effects such as the acceleration of aging, immunosuppression, and reduced ability to fight disease. Evidence is growing in the medical literature about social support and the neurobiological pathways through which it acts to foster resilience and reduce the risk for developing physical and mental illness. In human studies, low social support has been associated with physiological and neuroendocrine measures of heightened stress reactivity, including elevated heart rate, increased blood pressure, and exaggerated cardiovascular and neuroendocrine responses.
Social isolation and low levels of social support have been shown to be associated with increased morbidity and mortality in a host of medical illnesses. Numerous epidemiological studies have reported that poor social support is associated with the onset and relapse of depression, negative treatment response to dysthymia, seasonality of mood disorder, and the presence of depression comorbid in several medical illnesses, such as multiple sclerosis, cancer, and rheumatoid arthritis.
In contrast, high levels of social support appear to buffer or protect against the impact of mental and physical illness. The relationship between good social support and superior mental and physical health has been observed in diverse populations, including college students, unemployed workers, new mothers, widows, and parents of children with serious medical illnesses. Strong social support has been shown to be an important factor in decreasing functional impairment in people with depression and in increasing the likelihood of recovery.
Taken together, this is strong evidence to suggest that enhancing the perception of positive social support may increase stress resilience through optimizing the neurochemical stress response, which influences a cascade of positive cognitive, physical and emotional changes. In other words, when people feel more loved, they feel better and may actually be better.