Creating and thriving in strong, healthy relationships

livewell_harbus (2)Ann Marie Brouillette (EC) spoke to Dr. Amy Banks, MD, the first person to bring neuroscience together with cross-cultural theory in the study of relationships. They spoke about how relationships affect our mental health, what healthy relationships look like, and how HBSers can use these insights to thrive.

Dr. Amy Banks, MD will be presenting during Live Well Week, March 24th from 3:30 – 4:30pm in Aldrich 211.  Please join the discussion about building more rewarding relationships professionally and personally!  

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Ann Marie Brouillette: What is the connection between relationships and mental health?  

Amy Banks: Relationships are central to health and well-being.  We have been so programmed and told that health and well-being is about separating and individuating.  Yet, the research on interpersonal relationships is very clear that learning healthy relational strategies is critical to living longer.

When people appreciate that humans live longer and function better when they are in healthier relationships, it’s not a big step to realize it is important to apply these concepts to the creation of teams, the construction of an office environment, etc.

AMB: What does a healthy relationship look and feel like?

AB: Jean Baker Miller’s work identifies five positive markers of a healthy relationship.

  1. You usually have a sense of energy or zest
  2. You have an increased ability to act — both within the relationship and out in the world
  3. You have a clarity about yourself, about the other person, and about the relationship
  4. You have an increased sense of value about yourself – you literally feel better about yourself
  5. You have an increased desire to go out and build more connections and relationships

AMB: What do healthy relationships look like in the brain?

AB: When neural pathways are strong, you have an increased ability to be in healthy relationships, and this is a self-reinforcing system.  There are four markers of the impact of relationships on the brain, and I use the CARE acronym to describe them.crimson harbus online_outlines (2)

[stag_dropcap font_size=”50px” style=”normal”]C[/stag_dropcap] Healthy relationships create a sense of calm because of the smart vagus nerve.  The smart vagus nerve is part of your autonomic nervous system – it enervates your facial expressions.  When you’re in healthy relationships, you engage physically – raising your eyebrows, smiling, etc.  When this happens, your smart vagus nerve actually physically calms you down.

[stag_dropcap font_size=”50px” style=”normal”]A[/stag_dropcap]Acceptedness – When one is in a healthy relationship, one has an increased sense of acceptedness.  When you are socially excluded, there is an area of the brain that activates that is the same area that activates when we experience physical pain.   Thus, we can see that social exclusion causes real pain.  When we are accepted, we have less pain.

[stag_dropcap font_size=”50px” style=”normal”]R[/stag_dropcap]Resident system – In order to know other people, we have a mirror neuron system.  We know other people by internally mimicking them.  When we are in healthy relationships, that system gets stimulated as we mirror others.  This stimulation creates an increased ability to read and understand other people.

[stag_dropcap font_size=”50px” style=”normal”]E[/stag_dropcap]Energy.  The dopamine reward system is intricately tied into human relationships – hugging, affection, etc. stimulate dopamine generation and encourage us to do things that are healthy for us.  Relationships should be people’s key source of energy and dopamine.  In environments where relationships are not valued, the dopamine reward system gets pushed away from relationships, and can push people towards other, less healthy ways of generating dopamine like alcohol, drugs, shopping, or a whole host of other things.    

AMB: What are some common pitfalls you see high achievers fall into?

AB: High achievers often tend to have higher stress.  The smart vagus may be low because achieving has trumped relating.  People often forget to keep the relational piece in line.  Having strong relationships will be an asset to you achieving your goals; it doesn’t have to be a drag.  I often see high-achieving people trying to “go it alone”; they think they have to be unilaterally focused and driven on one goal.

High achievers also often have a set of assumptions – they assume they know how people perceive them without really doing a check on it. It can increase their relational capacity to really check whether the ways they think they are

Finally, the achievement itself can sometimes become such a dopamine hit  that it becomes the primary source of dopamine rather than relationships.

AMB: What kinds of professional environments lend themselves to the creation of healthy relationships?    

AB: As a leader, you want people to be well-connected.  Most businesses operate within teams; a goal of this should be to get people interacting on projects and developing connections.  You want to create an environment where people thrive – where they are healthy, where they want to go into work, where they don’t want to miss work.  It is important for leaders to leverage this knowledge about relationships both for the sake of the employees, but also for the sake of the company and even profitability.

If you create a hyper-competitive environment, you will be stimulating people’s stress response system rather than stimulating these neuro pathways.  Beyond a certain level, this is counter-productive, and the over-competitiveness of the organization should be addressed.

AMB: What are things companies can do to strengthen connections between employees?

AB: First, employers can teach employees information about the importance of healthy relationships- if people understand this concept and buy in, they can use it to positively impact their own lives.

Employers can also literally remind people that one of the best ways to de-stress is actually to engage in conversation with people in the office. Simply getting their facial muscles engaged in interaction rather than just going straight to their computer can increase calm and focus.  Time engaging with people is not wasted time, it is time that can help you be more productive.

Another aspect is social exclusion.  When companies understand the dynamic of the literal physical pain of social exclusion, it will require them to take diversity training to a new level.  It means training people to stop the judgments going on in their heads and to stop perpetuating these cycles of stratification, judgment, and pain.

For resonance, I encourage people to pause from time to time when they’re working with people to see if they are accurately reading the emotions others on their team are giving off.  You can take a brief pause to check – for example to say “I feel like you’re getting tense” and to clarify what you are reading.  The more accurate we are in reading the people around us and in allowing them to read us, the more settled we will feel in our relationships.

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