Working with relationships to improve our health

All of us have some relationships in our lives that we really enjoy, and others that are more difficult. The thing is, relationships can actually have a big impact on our health. They can cause us significant stress, or conversely, help us live more joyful and resilient lives.

First off, let’s talk about the benefits of good, supportive relationships, with our friends, family members, romantic partner, colleagues, etc. Human beings are social creatures, after all. We all struggle if we feel isolated and alone.

This can be really detrimental to our health. People of all age groups, but especially older adults, experience worse health outcomes if they feel stressed, depressed or anxious—all feelings that tend to be amplified if we don’t have enough social support. On the other hand, people that do get that support tend to feel more confident and happy. 

Good relationships can also help encourage you to take care of yourself. If you have a running buddy, for example, you’re more likely to get out there and exercise than if you’re trying to motivate yourself alone. Interestingly, studies have shown that health oftens spreads through friend groups: if one friend starts taking steps to improve their health, their friends are more likely to follow suit.

So make a point of cultivating the healthy, positive relationships in your life, and spending time with people who make you feel good and energized. Doing so inevitably improves your quality of life.

But what about the more difficult relationships? We’d all like to avoid those, but sometimes that’s not an option. Difficult relationships can cause a great deal of stress and tension, which affects all areas of our lives.

One way to work with a difficult relationship is to change our perspective. Rather than see that relationship as a problem (and the person as a difficult person) we can look at it as a learning experience. We can approach it with the attitude that maybe, this person is in our lives to teach us something, to show us some part of ourselves that we could work on. 

For example, let’s say you have a co-worker with whom you disagree politically. This is probably something many of us can relate to! You can spend your time arguing with them and getting angry, and watch your stress levels rise accordingly.

Or, you can try a different way. You can see how angry you start to feel when your co-worker starts saying something you disagree with, and think, “hmm, looks like I’m getting upset again. Maybe I can relax a little, and accept the fact that not everyone is going to agree with me.”

This isn’t necessarily easy, but it’s a good thing to practice. In this example, the difficult relationship becomes the perfect place to see yourself a little more clearly. You can observe how your perspective on the situation might be causing you stress and suffering, and how changing it can actually help you feel better.

Even difficult relationships can benefit us, if we approach them appropriately.