It's said that love conquers all and there's some science to suggest that love does make us stronger. Feelings of love can improve a remarkable variety of health factors, from reducing the brain's response to pain to lowering blood pressure. Loving touch can boost immune system function, and individuals who report having love-filled relationships tend to live longer than those who don't. And according to a new study, love may also help us conquer stress.
University of Exeter researchers found that when subjects were shown pictures of others being cared for and loved, it reduced their threat response in the brain.
For the study, published this week in the journal Social, Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 42 healthy adults were briefly shown images of other people in poses that demonstrated affection and emotional support. Afterward, they were briefly shown images of people making "threatening" (angry or fearful) faces. The whole time, the subjects were hooked up to functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machines so that the researchers could study their brain responses. A control group looked at just the threatening faces.
The researchers found that after viewing the images of love, the amygdala -- which acts as the brain's threat monitor -- did not subsequently respond to the threatening images. Being reminded of the feeling of being loved, the researchers hypothesize, hinders the brain's threat response, and may allow us to function more effectively in stressful situations.
"Our research suggests that social support and/or the activation of a secure attachment representation -- the belief that a significant other is sensitive to [a person's] needs and is available -- may work because it reduces an exaggerated threat response," Anke Karl, Exeter psychology and the study's senior researcher, said in an email to The Huffington Post. "Perceived social support may make people feel more safe which in turn may help them to face their anxieties in therapy better."
The effect was especially pronounced among subjects who reported having greater levels of anxiety, the researchers noted, which suggests that social support could be particularly useful in easing stress responses among anxiety-prone individuals or those with a stress disorder.
"These new research findings may help to explain why, for example, successful recovery from psychological trauma is highly associated with levels of perceived social support individuals receive," Karl said in a statement. "We are now building on these findings to refine existing treatments for [post-traumatic stress disorder] PTSD to boost feelings of being safe and supported in order to improve coping with traumatic memories.”
More specifically, activating the brain's secure attachment system (i.e. feeling safe and supported in our relationships) may enhance traditional PTSD like cognitive behavioral therapy, known as CBT.
"CBT requires individuals to face their anxieties, their traumatic memories, and this may be quite stressful and difficult to manage for some individuals," Karl told The Huffington Post.
"Knowing of the loving support of others before and after a treatment session may set their mind for example from 'I can’t do this/cope with this!' to 'It will be challenging but I can do it, I will be fine, I am not alone in this.' In other words, the down-regulation of the enhanced threat response by secure attachment reminders may help individuals with processing of the traumatic event in a way that does not overwhelm them, but activates new learning in a more effective way."
A growing body of research is shedding light on the effect of loving relationships and interactions on the brain. As neurobiologist Daniel Siegel told the New York Times: “Scientific studies of longevity, medical and mental health, happiness and even wisdom point to supportive relationships as the most robust predictor of these positive attributes in our lives across the life span.”