You’ve all been there before. You need to do something that is causing a bit of worry and trepidation. It could be shopping for a new car, going to the doctor for tests results, or looking for a new apartment. It could even be as subtle as wanting to try the new yoga studio that just opened in town. You decide to ask a friend to go with you feeling that his or her presence will help ease your anxiety.
Does having a friend by your side really reduce worry? Does it lessen the difficulty of the activity or situation you are tackling? Does it make those activities more manageable? Well, according to professors and a team of graduate students at the University of Virginia, the answer is yes.
In a March 2013 CBS news report, psychology professor Dennis Proffitt and a team of graduate students conducted a study whereby they asked students— either alone or with a friend standing by—to put a heavy backpack on and estimate the steepness of a hill. The team found that the hill was considered steeper if the subject was alone and less steep when there was a friend close by. Even more interesting was that the closer the relationship, the shallower the hill appeared.
In seeing how brains take social relationships and translate them to achieve better health outcomes, James Coan, associate professor of clinical psychology at the University of Virginia, conducted a study whereby subjects underwent an MRI with the forewarning that they would receive a series of mild electric shocks. However, they would not know when the shocks would come. Again, subjects were either alone or holding the hand of a friend. The results showed that the parts of the brain that sense danger were less active when the subject was holding the hand of a friend.
In this study, Professor Coan was looking at “anticipatory anxiety.” This is the anxiety most people experience in their day-to-day lives. It characterizes thoughts and fears regarding the outcome of future events and uncertain situations. These can include worries about an upcoming exam, a job interview, or an important meeting. These studies have shown that the presence of a friend can help lower worry and fear, making the experience more manageable.
In fact, many studies have shown that people who have a circle of friends tend to be healthier and live longer. In one such study in Australia, researchers at the Centre for Aging Studies at Flinders University followed 1,500 older people for ten years. They found that those who had a large network of friends outlived those with the fewest friends by 22%.
While scientists still don't understand exactly why this is the case, they suspect that the companionship of good friends provides material, mental, and emotional support, which has been shown to result in higher self-esteem and a feeling of more control over life. The companionship of good friends is also thought to be a buffer against depression and may prevent people from partaking in risky behaviors such as smoking and heavy drinking.
It appears that when you are coping with life’s many stressors all by yourself, not only do they feel more difficult and overwhelming, but they literally create more stress on your body. As these studies out of the University of Virginia show, friends help you face adverse events by providing emotional support and information that helps you deal better with the thoughts and worries leading up to the event and during the event itself.
So the next time you are nervous about doing something or partaking in a risky activity, bring a friend. The latest science proves friends are very good to have. Not only will they make a situation more manageable, their presence is good for your health.