Love: Its Positive Effects on Mental Health

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Building loving relationships has been shown to improve depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses.
Building loving relationships has been shown to improve depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses.

Love has been defined in various ways. From a deep feeling of affection, to the embodiment of virtues that always protects, trusts, hopes, and perseveres. And for centuries, humans have found ways to celebrate the existence of love.

Now, with a better understanding of the biology and chemistry of love, science has begun to recognize that there are health benefits as well. Helping our patients understand the value and importance of maintain loving relationships may help them to benefit from love's positive effects on mental health.  

Love is more than just an isolated feeling. Science now provides us evidence that what is experienced when we are involved in loving relationships involve various neurotransmitters and hormones in our bodies that affect us systemically.  

In the book A General Theory of Love (2001), a trio of psychiatry professors, Thomas Lewis, MD, Fari Amini, MD and Richard Lannon, MD, describe it in the following way: “Our nervous systems are not separate or self-contained; beginning in earliest childhood, the areas of our brain identified as the limbic system (hippocampus, amygdala, anterior thalamic nuclei, and limbic cortex) is affected by those closest to us (limbic resonance) and synchronizes with them (limbic regulation) in a way that has profound implications for personality and lifelong emotional health.” 

Interestingly, we can actually see evidence of these connections when we explore research in this area related to stress management, depression, anxiety

The ability to adequately cope with stress, stress management, is a protective factor against mental illness. British psychiatrist John Bowlby, MD, known for his seminal work in the area of developmental science, defined attachment as a “lasting psychological connectedness between human beings.” In Attachment (1969), Bowlby showed us the crucial importance of the secure relationship on the development of adaptiveness and coping capacity. And throughout our lifetime, this remains true. 

Allostatic load, a psychological term coined in the 1980s, represents the physiological consequences of chronic exposure to stress. Positive social experiences and higher levels of social integration and support are associated with lower allostatic load in both young and older cohorts.1 From childhood until old age, being connected to others in secure and loving relationships helps our patients better deal with stress.

Depression and anxiety disorders are the most common mental health disorders in the United States, and social isolation is clearly linked to higher rates of depression and anxiety. According to a Health and Human Services report, getting married and staying married reduces depression in both men and women.2 And research in the areas of physical health has shown that high levels of social support may actually improve prognosis in such conditions as cancer and myocardial infarctions by reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression that can often be associated with these illnesses.3,4

Accordingly, treatment of depression often times includes focusing on interpersonal relationships as a way to improve depression as is the case in attachment therapy in children and interpersonal therapy in adults. In addition, Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), which focuses on transforming relationships into ones that feels safe, secure and connected, have also been found to be effective in significantly reducing the symptoms of depression and anxiety.5 Ultimately, encouraging our patients to be involved in loving and stable supportive relationships can potentially help in their recovery from common mental health illnesses.

Mahatma Ghandi once wrote, “Where there is love there is life.” Loving and stable relationships can help to improve a person's ability to manage stress and can help to decrease anxiety and depression. We are all social creatures. Therefore, as were provide mental health treatment, let us be mindful to evaluate our patient's level of social connectedness, and always encourage them to develop and nurture stable and loving relationships. 

Melissa Vallas, MD, is lead psychiatrist at Children's System of Care, Alameda County (California) Behavioral Health Care Services Agency.

References

  1. Seeman, TE. Social Relationships, Gender, and Allostatic Load Across Two Age Cohorts. Psychosomatic Medicine. 2002; 64(3):395-406.
  2. Wood RG, et al. The Effects of Marriage on Health: A Synthesis of Recent Research Evidence. Mathematica Policy Research, Inc. for Department of Health and Human Services. June 19, 2007.
  3. Burgess C, et al. Depression and anxiety in women with early breast cancer: five year observational cohort study. BMJ. 2005; 330 :702
  4. Frasure-Smith N, et al. Social support, depression, and mortality during the first year after myocardial infarction Circulation. 2000;101(16):1919-24.
  5. Greenberg LS and Watson, JC. Emotion-Focused Therapy for Depression. American Psychological Association. Washington, DC. (2006). 8: 353.
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