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How relationships can impact your well-being

The quality and variety of relationships in your life can play a role in strengthening your immunity, and speed up recovery from illnesses

According to the Harvard Study on Adult Development, people who were happiest in their relationships at 50, were the healthiest at 80
According to the Harvard Study on Adult Development, people who were happiest in their relationships at 50, were the healthiest at 80 (Unsplash/Melissa Askew)

Are healthy, meaningful, nourishing relationships key to achieving holistic health and well-being? The latest research findings seem to be make a connection between the quality of relationships and their impact on the health and well-being of an individual. 

“I have observed that for people with pre-existing conditions, those with a strong support system in the form of a significant other, spouse, family or close friends experience less pain and less disability, and show better coping and a more positive expectation of life than those managing alone,” says Sujata Ameya, clinical psychologist at the National Institute of Mental Health And Neurosciences (NIMHANS), Bengaluru. Ameya has spent the past 32 years working as a couples’ therapist. 

“If a person is suffering from a critical condition like cancer, and they have a solid emotional connection in any relationship in their life, the way they relate to the illness, the way they manage and go through it is significantly different than those who don’t have good relationships,” Ameya adds.

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This view finds resonance with Shakuntala Devulapally, a cancer survivor and a practising yoga therapist and cancer coach based in Hyderabad. Reflecting on her own personal experience and practice, she says, “When I work with someone who is undergoing cancer treatment, or has just recovered and is getting back to a normal life, I find that their relationship with their family members is crucial for their healing. Keeping this in mind, my interventions include not just the patient, but also the family and primary caregivers.”

The whole family goes through the recuperation process along with the patient, Devulapally notes. “When the family stays together through the treatment, despite the financial strain, the ability of the patient to stay calm, tolerate pain, and the desire to get better is higher. They also feel safer and supported, which hastens their recovery,” she adds. 

Chennai-based therapist Mina Dilip shares how she follows a person-centred and non-directive approach with clients in her practice. “In my practice the relationship between the client and therapist serves as the cornerstone for building trust, developing a positive transference, and eventually, healing,” Dilip says. Observing how loneliness has become a chronic issue, Dilip says, “When interactions are bitter it creates a load on our nervous system. The nervous system goes into fight or flight mode and releases adrenaline or cortisol hormones at high levels, which over time manifest as chronic stress.”

Chronic stress, according to Dilip, impacts all internal organs and triggers health issues. “We need to recognise the importance of connections and learn to relate in positive ways with ourselves and others.”

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What makes a good life?  
This inter-linkage between the health of an individual and the quality of relationships in their life was also established in a recently published study by Harvard University. The 85-year-long Harvard Study on Adult Development, where researchers tracked the health of 268 Harvard sophomores from 1938 onwards, found that the degree to which people were happy in the relationships in their lives had a powerful influence on their health. The study found that close relationships protected people from life’s discontent and helped delay physical and mental deterioration.

“The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80,” says Robert Waldinger, professor of psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School and director of this study. Many research studies indicate that chronic stress can impair immunity. When feelings of insecurity start growing in a marriage or workplace, there is a lack of trust and security felt with those around, and this can have a direct bearing on one’s immunity as well. This was substantiated by research published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, which found that those who had difficulty establishing close, trusted relationships showed signs of weaker immune function.

Researchers found those who experienced higher “attachment insecurity”, or difficulty trusting and depending on others, difficulty with emotional intimacy, and worries around being abandoned by loved ones, had lower activity in their natural killer cells which are the key defenders against illnesses.

A relationship of trust
In my training as is a yoga therapist, one of the most important and interesting perspectives I have received from my teacher, Saraswati Vasudevan, was to meet the student as a friend, with a sense of maitri bhāva, or with an attitude of friendship. This perspective shows you how a person’s experience of a condition itself can transform when they start exploring the relationship they have with themselves and the people around them, during the process of coaching or yoga therapy. 

For instance, those recovering from posttraumatic stress disorders in the relationship space often find biological processes such as their menstrual cycle or digestion affected. As they process this trauma and take steps to have healthier relationships in their lives, significant transformations are observed in the physical and mental health parameters too.

In one of his interviews, the late renowned yoga master T.K.V. Desikachar, had said, “The first requirement when a sick person comes for a consultation is that they should like and trust the teacher. Without a loving caring relationship with your teacher, transformation cannot happen.” The first sūtra in Patanjali’s Yoga Sūtrās, atha yoga-anuśāsanam implies this readiness from both the student and the teacher to listen and pay attention to each other.

First step towards healing 
Ameya emphasises that it is important not to minimise or disregard what you experience in a relationship. “Recognising red flags and taking steps to protect your psychological safety is important,” she says. To reduce loneliness, Dilip recommends putting away devices and taking time out daily to interact meaningfully and in the real world with at least one person in your immediate circle. 

In the journey to holistic health and well-being, it is important to first recognise and bring awareness to one’s current situation. Checking in with oneself, ‘Where am I?’ with respect to one’s relationship with oneself and others is a good starting point. Discovering practices that can help us befriend our fears and dance with them, rather than ignore, suppress, or repress them will set the ground for transformation.

Hariprasad Varma is an executive coach and yoga therapist based in Hyderabad.

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