Mental Health Insights
Withdrawal, talking to yourself, and meeting friends may be a mentally healthy way to heal the physical body.
Conventional wisdom has it that no matter how hard your work day is, you're supposed to turn into a sociable family member when you get home and "communicate" with your spouse. But a New York University study indicates that complete withdrawal may be a healthy and effective way to cool out after a tough day.
Previous research suggested that when workers spend their evening on the web or watching television, stress-hormone levels decline and elevated blood pressure gradually returns to normal.
An NYU study of 33 air traffic controllers—one of the most stressful of all occupations—found that the men whose spouses treated them with sympathy and appreciation in the evening withdrew the most and expressed anger less. The controllers whose partners gave little emotional support didn't recover as well from job strain.
Employed women may not be able to withdraw as easily when they get home because of the disproportionate amount of family responsibilities still typically borne by women.
Hard-driving, competitive type-A personalities have long been considered prime candidates for coronary heart disease. But two Finnish researchers say people driven to succeed come in two types, and only one of them is on the fast track to a heart attack.
In a study of 990 young men and women, University of Helsinki psychologists Lusa Keltikangas-Jarvinen and Katri Raikkonen found that type As whose hearts are endangered as they climb higher and higher are those who tend to be unsociable, with behavior that is rooted in aggression, hostility, and impatience. They are generally low in self-confidence and have difficulty setting goals for themselves. These subjects had elevated pulse rates and higher levels of serum lipids (total cholesterol, LDL, or "bad" cholesterol, and triglycerides, other blood chemicals linked to clogged arteries).
On the other hand, type As who aren't headed for heart disease have "healthy ambition," are more social and have in common what researchers call "leadership and a sense of responsibility." Not surprisingly, they have positive views of themselves. For both groups, spending time with friends appears to be a key longevity prescription, especially for hard-on-their-hearts type As.
The Fatigue Factor
Everyone knows that fatigue can lower resistance and leave you prone to colds. But now there is more reason than ever to rest and take care of yourself. Researchers in the Netherlands have found a strong link between extreme exhaustion and heart attack risk.
Medical psychologist Paul Falger, MD, and colleagues at the University of Limburg School of Medicine compared men who have suffered a heart attack with men who have not. Fager concluded that fatigue and certain sleep problems can be warning signs in the months preceding a first heart attack or sudden cardiac death. Their findings are so strong that extreme exhaustion is slowly being recognized by researchers in the field as one of the coronary risk factors, like high cholesterol, high blood pressure and smoking. The general state of malaise that Fager terms "vital exhaustion" involves both an overwhelming loss of energy and feelings of being defeated or dejected. Fager thinks these feelings may be more common among people who are faced with an overpowering life crisis or who are struggling through a prolonged period of work overload.
When coupled with other risk factors, sleeping problems can also be precursors of coronary disease. The four sleeping complaints most strongly connected to heart attacks are a tendency to take naps during the day, a feeling of exhaustion when you wake up in the morning, difficulty falling asleep, and poor quality of sleep in general.
Fatigue by itself is generally not sufficient to cause heart disease. It is when the heart is already vulnerable through other risk factors that this additional stress becomes dangerous, like a strong wind that may stir up an already existing fire.
Talking to Yourself
If you find yourself speaking into the mirror, it doesn't mean you're crazy. We all tend to engage in what psychologists call "self-talk"—thoughts we're not fully conscious of, like "I know I'll make it," or "my life is a mess." Not surprisingly, our emotional states, which bear on physical health, are connected to the kinds of messages we give ourselves.
Psychologists have looked at the self-talk of people ranging from the extremely healthy to the mentally disturbed. The most emotionally healthy tended to have inner dialogues that were somewhat more positive than negative (roughly a 60:40 ratio). That may be a good way to cope with stress, but researchers found "Pollyanna" monologues are actually less healthy. Those who had psychological problems tended to favor negative or at least ambivalent dialogues.
Cognitive therapists say the duality of self-talk often can be improved by controlling negative thoughts and learning healthier ways of thinking, positive feelings will follow.
A Healthy Approach to Loneliness
We often hear that social support from family and friends can help us stay healthy. But how do we know when we are getting enough? Are people with smaller families or fewer friends doomed to be less healthy? In a study of 165 college students, two Kent State University researchers defined some of the factors that make up loneliness. Their finding: Loneliness is connected less to the number of people we have relationships with, and more with the belief that our current relationships fall short of our ideal. Typically, participants felt lonely when they judged their friendships to be worse than those they had had in the past or those their peers had at the same time.
The participants judged their romantic and family relationships in much the same way they did friendships. But their assessment of their romantic and family ties did not affect their satisfaction with their friendships, which—for college students at least—was the more critical factor in terms of loneliness.
The researchers pointed out that what constitutes loneliness may change as we grow older. Although people at different ages may still compare themselves with others, their peer groups will be changing, which may lead to new standards for judging their own relationships (for example, more emphasis on romantic and family relationships, perhaps, and less on friendship).
One additional finding: The participants who were most satisfied with their social relationships reported having more meaningful, self-revealing conversations than those who were less satisfied. This suggests that risk-taking in relationships, though it may produce more anxious moments, is ultimately more satisfying than "playing it safe."