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7:46 AM CDT, Thu March 30, 2017

For Better or Worse, Gatherings Can Heal

April 14, 2014, 09:00 AM
For Better or Worse, Gatherings Can Heal
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Walk into any restaurant, park or grandma’s backyard this summer and just imagine the storylines playing out at each table.

There’s the college graduate, slumped under his mortarboard, buffered by an iPad, while family members hurl questions about his future, barely 27 minutes after he’s received his diploma.

There’s the wedding shower luncheon, with the bride sandwiched between dueling mothers, all having such “an awesome time!” that their teeth are cracking.

Then there’s the annual family reunion that results in launching food and fists over the mention of a feud three generations back that no one can recall since Ellis Island.

Yet... we still gather. Even if we grumble, eye our watches, add new twists to old private jokes about the people we love to hate and hate to love, we look back, remember it tenderly and ask ourselves why we don’t get together more often.

We come together, for better or worse, in our sickness and health. We bring our addictions, depressions and manic outbursts. Our unresolved feuds and hurts, childhood competitions and jealousies all troop along with us to these family gatherings. Some of us attend with eager anticipation and leave with a satisfied sense of connection with those to whom we belong. Others go out of obligation and with dread.

When the schmoozing and visiting is over, the latter feel depleted and relieved that they made it through the ordeal.

But go, we do. And it turns out to be good for our health in the long run that we show up. Abundant research shows the more and better the relationships are in your life, the better your health tends to be.

Deep connections, better health

Improved immune function, longevity, decreased risk of cardiovascular disease and recovery from serious illness and surgery have all been linked to social support. Dr. Andrew Weil writes in his newsletter, Self Healing, "As part of taking a health history, our physicians at the University of Arizona's Integrative Medicine Clinic ask new patients about their spouses or significant others, their children and their friends. Why? We're trying to find out if people have love and connection in their lives. There's now a large body of research showing that bonds with family and friends have a powerful influence on not only your emotional well-being but also your physical health."

A friend a day keeps the doctor away

Being socially isolated can increase the risk of catching the common cold. A study revealed that people who reported having three or fewer types of social ties – friends, spouse, family, coworkers, community groups, etc. – had more than four times the risk of catching a cold than those with six or more types.

On more serious health levels, those with the fewest social connections are more likely to die sooner than those with more. Even people with unhealthy lifestyles yet who have close social connections live longer than those with poor social ties but healthier habits (Those with both healthy lifestyles and close social ties fared the best.)

A study of elderly heart attack patients showed that those who lacked emotional support were three times more likely to die within six months of their attacks than those with emotional support. Studies have found that women in satisfying marriages were less likely to develop risk factors for cardiovascular disease.

This research may be comforting to those who are natural social connectors: the extroverts. It may bring a sense of dread to introverts and shy people who find it difficult or uncomfortable to connect socially.

The secret lies, we think, in connecting authentically. Cocktail party chatter is not the kind of social connection that improves health. A meaningful conversation with a friend or being emotionally present while doing volunteer work provides the healing connections we all need. A distressed marriage or family relationship deserves professional attention with as much urgency as chest pains or migraines. The two may be more connected than you think.

Perhaps then, it matters little if the gathering of family and friends is a mixed palette of dread and delight, of eye-rolling or sincere interest. Perhaps there is healing from the act of gathering itself.

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