“Friendship is a wildly underrated medication,” Anna Deavere Smith once said. The actress might have been joking, but her words are supported by science. A new Australian study has found that people who have largely positive experiences with their friends are more likely to enjoy better health than if their close relationships are rocky.

In order to track the connection between physical health and healthy friendships, researchers at the University of Auckland had over 4,000 participants check-in on their smartphones or smartwatches, recording their blood pressure and heart rate, as well as their stress and coping levels.

Over the course of the three weeks of tracking, every three days the participants also shared their experiences and feelings about their closest relationships, including positive and negative memories.

Relationships are not just cut and dried. They are always changing.

The research team found that people with more positive experiences, as opposed to negative ones (or experiences that bounced back and forth), reported feeling less stress, having better coping skills and lower blood pressure.

“Both positive and negative experiences in our relationships contribute to our daily stress, coping, and physiology, like blood pressure and heart rate reactivity,” Brian Don, lead author of the study, said in a media release. “Additionally, it’s not just how we feel about our relationships overall that matters; the ups and downs are important too.”

Relationships are not just cut and dried. They are always changing. They’re also affected by outside influences beyond the dynamic of just two people, and these factors can change people’s relationships, and in turn, their health. The COVID-19 pandemic, for example, put new strains on many relationships and often affected how we interacted with our family and friends.

“Since the COVID-19 pandemic, relationships have been facing unprecedented challenges, turbulence, and change,” said Don, a faculty member in the School of Psychology at the University of Auckland. “What this means is that the COVID pandemic may have health implications not just because of the virus itself, but also indirectly as a result of the impact it has on people’s relationships. That is, because the COVID-19 pandemic has created considerable strain, turbulence, and variability in people’s relationships, it may indirectly alter stress, coping, and physiology in daily life, all of which have important implications for physical well-being.”

The study’s authors caution against simply thinking that our friendships can make us sick. Instead, relationships are just one more influence on our health.

Don also hopes to look beyond just heart rate and blood pressure in the future. “It would be useful to examine other physiological states, such as neuroendocrine or sympathetic nervous system responses as outcomes of daily positive and negative relationship experiences, which may reveal different patterns of associations.”

Working Through Problems with Friends
We don’t need a study to tell us how uncomfortable it feels when our friendships go through tough times. These tips may help ease the situation:

  • Take some time to cool off before talking about it. Keep in mind that one of you may need more time than the other — and allow for it.
  • Reflect on what went wrong because you can’t fix a problem if you don’t understand what it’s about.
  • Try to see both sides. Though you may not agree with your friend, seeing their side can help you consider the next step to take.
  • Choose the right time and place to talk things over. Try to choose a private setting and be sure to set aside enough time. You don’t want to feel rushed or to rush your friend.

The study is published in Social Psychological and Personality Science.