Keeping the friendship fires burning

Medical Post
Helping Hand Column, August 22, 2006

Friends not only feed our souls, they make us physically healthier

I drove home this evening with a smile on my face, singing along with the radio, thinking of how lucky I am. I had just spent a wonderful evening with a dear friend—a deluxe manicure, a relaxed meal on the patio of a restaurant on a perfect summer evening, lots of laughs, and quiet shared thoughts and support.

I have known her for more than 20 years; there were times when I saw her daily and times when years went by with no contact. Yet, I always knew she was there, available, understanding. We have seen each other through the rigours of medical training and subsequent professional decisions, as well as the joys and crises of our personal lives—marriage, pregnancy, babies, adolescents, separation and divorce and remarriage, and now, planning children’s weddings.

I reflected on other friends and the light they have also brought to my life over the years: the friend who planted my annuals for me one year when I was away; the friend who left a lemon meringue pie on my doorstep when I was recovering from an illness; the friend who signed us both up for a yoga class; the friend who mentors me and connects me to others who can help me in my work; the friend who patiently taught me to mountain bike; and the friend who makes me laugh until I cry. . . .

Life in medicine is exciting and fulfilling, but it is full of demands and requires us to be responsible much of the time. We are busy, tired and easily drained. Friends feed our soul.

There is a lot of research to support the benefits of friendships. It is known that people with friends recover more quickly from illness, use fewer medications and need to see their doctors less often. A University of Chicago study showed socially connected people have more robust hearts. Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh showed the more social you are, the less susceptible you are to getting the common cold.

Friends also protect our sanity. A landmark study from University of California at Los Angeles led by Dr. Laura Klein (PhD) showed women respond to stress by “tending and befriending.” Under stress, a cascade of chemicals, including oxytocin and estrogen, is released, which leads women to bond. This in turn increases oxytocin levels, which lessens stress and leads to calming. This helps to understand why many women in medicine naturally turn to other female colleagues and form groups of female colleagues to cope better with work-related stressors.

What makes a good friend? Relationship experts Drs. Les and Leslie Parrott describe 10 traits for enduring friendships. A good friend:

• makes time—during crises and in the middle of the mundane
• keeps a secret
• cares deeply
• provides space—offers room to breathe, to be individual, is not oppressive
• speaks the truth—is able to, honestly yet respectfully, tell and hear the truth, despite the pain
• forgives faults—knows you and likes you anyway
• remains faithful—is loyal and does not desert you in bad times
• laughs easily
• celebrates your success—is not jealous, resentful, competitive or threatened
• connects strongly—you share common interests and similar experiences.

Summer is a great time to nurture friendships. Patients are away on holidays, so clinics and offices may be less hectic. Department and office meetings slow down. There is less teaching to be done. Colleagues are on vacation, so rounds are often cancelled. The days are longer, so bright evenings offer promise and possibilities. This provides more time to be available and to work on your friendships.

Mamta Gautam is an Ottawa psychiatrist who specializes in treating physician patients. If you have a question you would like addressed in this column, please contact Dr. Gautam at mgautam@rogers.com. Please include “Helping Hand” in the subject line. All inquiries will be confidential. Your questions will not be replied to, but may be selected to be answered in this column, which is intended to be educational, not therapeutic.