Contact: Bert Uchino, PhD
For Release: Immediately
It’s now widely understood that emotions can affect health—think of the hostile, frustrated businessman with high blood pressure and chest pains he’s trying to ignore. Also, many of us understand—and science confirms—that our relationships can foster illness; just ask the single mother who develops ulcers as she tries unsuccessfully to control her “wild child” teenaged son. But few scientific studies have taken an integrated approach, exploring together how emotions influence relationships and vice-versa, and how both can predict health or disease.
Cutting-edge scientific evidence that crosses these “borders,” as well as considering how health affects emotions and relationships, appears in a special October issue of Psychosomatic Medicine, journal of the American Psychosomatic Society.
“We have been missing an opportunity to understand fully what’s going on in the real world,” says Bert Uchino, PhD, Chairman of the Department of Psychology at University of Utah. He coauthored the issue’s Introduction with Naomi Eisenberger, PhD. Uchino cites the overloaded employee who comes home so burnt out that he can’t engage with his family; emotions, relationships and health are often intertwined in our lives.
The new issue is a window onto frontier studies that suggest some directions this integrated research is taking. Among examples:
>> Social rejection experienced just before bedtime is linked to shorter sleep, especially in those who tend to ruminate a lot. There’s preliminary evidence that poor sleep, in turn, may increase sensitivity to social rejection, so people become more upset by this stress experienced in daily life.
WHY IT MATTERS: Poor sleep is associated with worse physical and mental health. Identifying and addressing possible causes could improve sleep. Study Link: https://journals.lww.com/psychosomaticmedicine/Abstract/2019/10000/Bidirectional_Links_Between_Social_Rejection_and.9.aspx
>> Amid rising dementia rates in our aging population, new research suggests that different types of dementia– Alzheimer’s disease and others– may impact emotions and social behaviors differently. Very new research with patients appears to confirm this.
WHY IT MATTERS: Knowing that a specific illness prompts certain behaviors, for example a declining ability to recognize emotions in others or inappropriate touching of other people, could be beneficial. It may reduce stress levels in patients and cause caregivers less frustration and anger, says Uchino. Since caregiving for dementia patients can worsen the caregiver’s own health and even shorten life, any steps to improve the caregiver’s mental health and possibly lead to earlier detection of illness would be helpful. Study Link: https://journals.lww.com/psychosomaticmedicine/Abstract/2019/10000/Stress_and_Illness__A_Role_for_Specific_Emotions.7.aspx
>> Our relationships both influence and are influenced by the immune system, new evidence suggests. Two different pathways for how this works may have roots in evolution that promoted our survival. Negative social experiences and emotions such as conflict and loneliness are linked to greater inflammation in the human body, which does promote wound healing. These emotions in ancient times could have signaled a heightened likelihood of threats or attacks, so effective wound healing was crucial. On the other hand, people with large, diverse social networks—lots of relationships to draw on for support—show greater immunity to viruses. That’s adaptive, too, since their bigger social circle exposes them to more viruses like the common cold, and so they need more help from the immune system to defend themselves from infectious diseases.
WHY IT MATTERS: This suggests that for an optimal immune system we should try to reduce the negative social experiences that are linked to chronic inflammation (associated with many health problems such as heart disease and strokes) because we’re less often in need of the acute inflammatory response our early ancestors needed when chased by wild animals or rival tribesmen. At the same time, we should increase positive social experiences for better protection against viruses. “These are two different systems, they’re not the same thing,” but together they point the way to a stronger immune system, says Uchino. Study Link: https://journals.lww.com/psychosomaticmedicine/Abstract/2019/10000/Two_Distinct_Immune_Pathways_Linking_Social.6.aspx
An array of other studies in the journal’s special issue also offers illuminating new insights on the ties between emotions, relationships, health and illness.
The American Psychosomatic Society (APS) (www.psychosomatic.org), founded in 1943, is an international multidisciplinary academic society that organizes an annual scientific meeting and educational programs. Psychosomatic Medicine is its scientific journal. The membership of over 700 is composed of academic scientists and clinicians in medicine, psychiatry, epidemiology, health psychology and allied health services. The mission of the APS is “to advance and integrate the scientific study of biological, psychological, behavioral and social factors in health and disease.”