THE BLOG

Friendship And Our Vagus Nerve

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We don't often think that the nature of our friendships has a profound or major impact on our health and well-being. But a recent New York Times, article by journalist Kate Murphy cites recent research to support that loneliness is detrimental to our health. As we know, the antidote to loneliness lies in the bonds of friendship.

Research links friendship with the tenth cranial nerve, the longest one, known as the 'vagus' ("wandering" in Latin) for its meandering course through the body--from the brain, through the chest and abdomen. This nerve is largely responsible for our behavior to fight or take flight or freeze in response to stress, which in turn, affects the rate of respirations and heart beats per minute and the amount of gastric juice secreted by the stomach.

Research shows that the tone of the vagus nerve has been connected to longevity. If we don't relax, the tenth nerve loses its tone. Authentic friendship keeps the wanderer in shape, while loneliness has been equated with effects as detrimental to our health as obesity or an addiction to alcohol or cigarettes. Therefore, working on obstacles to friendship may be as important as exercising in the gym.

In this day of Facebook a person puts forth a public image. Real friends accept us beneath the image, for our genuine self. But friendship isn't always easy, especially if we're not good enough friends to ourselves. If we've grown up in an abusive environment of any kind, physical or psychological, we may find people who, in some way, replicate this maltreatment. We have to learn to view and accept ourselves as well as our friends for foibles and vulnerabilities.

Friendship is a two-way street. A solid relationship creates a safe space for both people. Friends are open to learning about each other, but also open to learning about themselves. They're able to accept criticism offered in a constructive and caring way and be open to changing their behaviors.

We may assume that friendship flows like water, but like boulders in a natural spring, friendship can hit tough spots. These require effort to navigate. Sometimes a therapist's tools come in handy.

A favorite therapeutic tool is the "holding environment." In this situation, a therapist listens with acceptance, sympathy and empathy. Other times confrontation (in a caring way) is indicated to communicate that a person's words or actions impact negatively on another. For example, many years ago my brother Bob pulled me aside at a family gathering and said, "Do you realize you always go for a person's Achilles heel?" Because I knew he cared, I was able to hear his criticism and to change my behavior.

Conclusion: Friendship is linked to the vagus nerve, which innervates many organs, and is vital to our health and sense of well-being.