The Importance of Healthy Relationships

The Immune System, connections and yoga

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Many of us know that when we are in love it feels yummy and blissful, that our body feels light and airy. Likewise when we fight with our love ones we can feel weakened, tired and sometimes even achy and flu-like. What is really amazing is that there is research, which reveals that this is actually a physiological phenomenon which can be measured. When we feeling connected, supported, loved, it appears that certain things specifically happen. For example, we release more oxytocin, the cuddle hormone, this hormone can actually reduce the activity of the fear response in the brain, via the amygdala. Most notably, a belief in being connected is correlated with greater vagal tone. The vagus is the main nerve of the parasympathetic nervous system, the rest and digest system. When the vagus is well-toned we tend to be calmer, are more emotionally resilient, and generally healthier. (Kok 2013) Likewise vagal tone is correlated with a reduction in inflammation, and helps to reduce heart rate, thus, reducing risk of cardiovascular disease and various other physical diseases (Cohen 1988). In fact, if we have healthy relationships we heal more quickly after surgery and we tend to live longer!

Now on the opposite side of the equation negative relationship can cause much strive and undermine well-being and it is seems better for our health to be in no relationship than to be in one that causes constant strife. For example painful relationships with a significant other can cause dsyregulation in the immune system, we literally get sick more often. Also in a 1988 seminal study researchers found that painful marriages increase risk of disease as much as smoking and obesity. This is especially true of cardiovascular disease as stress increases blood pressure and cortisol levels and the chronic situation where both are high have pernicious effects on the heart. Intriguingly women often report more martial stress than men do, so they tend to suffer more physically in challenging relationships then men. Men somehow seem to benefit more often from a health perspective in relationships even when they are a bit difficult.

So what can we practically do with this information to increase our sense of well-being. One thing would obviously be to only make sure to stay with partners where there is peace, but sometimes this is not always the case and we aren't prepared to leave relationship, in this case mindfulness and even yoga can really help and this is for three reasons.

1. Mindfulness practice tends to increase compassion. (Gar 2012) When we feel more compassionate, even if nothing has changed in our lives we have this experience of feeling more connected to others which seems to give rise to more vagal tone and thereby greater health.

2.In a research study looking at women with major depressive disorder, who felt deeply disconnected and isolated, expressed a feeling of much greater connectedness following the yoga classes (Kisner 2013)

3. When we practice yoga and mindfulness we tend to become more tolerant and often that which would uspet us no longer seems so stressful. Further we become more emotional and physiological resilient and so negative experiences simply impact the body less.

So, basically if your relationship is hard and you aren't ready to leave consider practice yoga and mindfulness to enhance your sense of well-being and reduce the strain of the difficulties you feel. On the other hand if you have a wonderful relationship that you partner for supporting you in being healthy and well!

Heather Mason

Founder of the Minded Institute, The Minded Institute

Heather Mason is a leader in the field of mind-body therapy and the founder of Yoga Therapy for the Mind. She develops innovative methods for mental health treatment drawing on her robust educational background including an MA in Psychotherapy, an MA in Buddhist Studies, studies in Neuroscience and a current MSc in Medical Physiology.. She is also a 500 RYT, a yoga therapist and an MBCT facilitator. Heather offers various professional trainings for yoga teachers, healthcare professionals and therapists, lectures around the world, and delivers training to medical students. She also develops protocols for different client populations by translating cutting edge research from the psycho-biology and neuro-biology of stress into yoga practices, breathwork, mindfulness interventions and therapeutic holding. Further she is involved in research on the efficacy of these practices, holds the annual UK yoga therapy conference and is blazing the trail for the integration of yoga therapy into the NHS