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Stress, relationship and mental health

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Relationships are one of the most important aspects of human life, yet often ignored. And, it's not just the number of friends one has, but it's the quality of close relationships that matters. Living in conflict or within a toxic relationship is more damaging than staying alone

Health is a unity and harmony within the mind, body and spirit, which is unique to each person. The level of wellness is, in part, determined by the ability to deal with and defend against stress. Mental health is described as an appropriate balance between the individual, his social group, and the larger environment. These three components combine to promote psychological and social harmony, a sense of well-being, self-actualisation and environmental mastery. The relationship between two or more persons is a connection based on feelings, which constitutes an important aspect of sound mental health. How healthy or unhealthy the relationship is, affects particular aspects of life. A person’s perception of the world and the factors therein are moulded by the person’s experiences in a relationship.

Almost all of us feel stressed or overwhelmed due to undesirable and disturbing life events. Supportive relationships with others, particularly family members, helps us face these challenges in a healthy manner. Sound mental health plays a key role in establishing and maintaining satisfying relationships with others. Mental morbidity may prevent people to make or start new relationships or get the most of existing ones.

For example, anxiety in a person can lead to a feeling of insecurity. Symptoms of depression, such as irritability or a desire to isolate, can get in the way of developing and maintaining satisfying and healthy relationships with others. Relationships have their ups and downs, but if one or both partners experience mental health problems, it can bring additional challenges. 

Studies have found that being in a relationship can significantly decrease stress, help reduce mental health problems, and improve brain chemistry. Staying connected with others makes one feel valued by somebody or valuing someone else and puts a purpose or meaning behind everyday interactions. A study from Florida found that those in committed relationships experienced fewer mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, mood disorders, adjustment problems, suicidal behaviour and other forms of psychological distress.

Researchers have confirmed that marriage can add years to a person’s life and lower the risk of diseases like cancer, high blood pressure, heart disease etc. Caring spouses often encourage each other to eat right, exercise, and choose a healthy lifestyle. Close and supportive companionship also acts as a buffer against stress.

Unhappy marital relationship can drag partners down in body and spirit. Fights, uncertainty about the future, unequal workloads, and lack of compatibility can generate stress. Researchers claim that the impact of marital stress on health is similar to traditional risk factors, such as physical inactivity and smoking.

Women in unsatisfying marital relation are often targets for heart disease, higher blood pressure, higher cholesterol, and higher body mass indexes. High prevalence of depression, anxiety, and anger has been noted in such women.

Marital stress triples the risk of heart surgery, myocardial infarction, or death in the following five years. Survival from congestive heart failure depends just as much on the quality of the marriage as the severity of the disease. The immune system tends to falter in times of stress, and marital stress is certainly no exception.

Women in unhappy marriages are especially vulnerable to infectious diseases. The stress of an unhappy marriage can potentially wipe out any health benefit a person might gain from the marriage. To have conflicting ideas may be a normal part of a healthy relationship but if argument between the partners occurs more often, it might be due to some kind of mental ill-health. Although we may think we know how to distinguish between a healthy relationship and an unhealthy one, creating and sustaining healthy relationships is not always simple. There is increasing evidence that different social variables influence health through different mechanisms.

It is for the behavioral scientists to see how to successfully apply this knowledge to health promoting interventions. Supportive guidance through professional counseling or other relationship support services may help in such difficult situations.

Relationships are one of the most important aspects of human life, yet often ignored. Social connections with family, friends, and community makes one physically healthier with enhanced longevity of life, and with fewer mental health problems than people who are less well connected. It’s not just the number of friends one has, but it’s the quality of close relationships that matters. Living in conflict or within a toxic relationship is more damaging than staying alone.

(The writer is professor of psychiatry and chairman, Centre for Rehabilitation Sciences, Jamia Hamdard, New Delhi)




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