Relationships…and Your Health

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Happy Lunar New Year!

The bittersweet plant, also known as climbing nightshade, pops up along a certain stretch of the country road that I walk. The tangle of vines, from which bright red berries hang, is beautiful…and often ends up on our fireplace mantle as a decorative element.

Bittersweet symbolizes truth, honesty and, energetically, is considered to be protective against evil.

“Bittersweet” is also how I would sum up my 2019. It was a year of finally seeing—and accepting—some hard truths about certain relationships that negatively affected my health. I have Hashimoto’s, an autoimmune thyroid disease, and the thyroid is exquisitely sensitive to stress of any kind.

Relationships = Energy.  As much attention as we give to food, movement, sleep and other healthy habits, we also need to recognize that our relationships can affect our health positively or negatively in a big way. Toxic relationships, in particular, can hurt our health.

If you made health resolutions on January 1st from which you have already strayed, you may also want to consider the relationships in your life. Are they supporting or undermining your health?

In a 2015 study, older adults reported poor or worsening self-rated health when they experienced “negative social exchanges”. These interactions are characterized by insensitive or unsympathetic behavior from others; receiving unwanted advice from others; failing to get support when it is most needed; or; being rejected or neglected by others.1  Negative social exchanges have also been linked with increased risk of heart disease; a rapid decline in health; worse recovery after surgery; declines in cognitive functioning and even increased risk of death.2

Being constantly engaged in negative social exchanges triggers the release of stress hormones, like cortisol, in the bloodstream, which activates your body’s “fight or flight” response. When your stress hormones are chronically high, this creates inflammation in the body. Inflammation is at the root of most health conditions and diseases.3
For example, adverse (negative) close relationships may increase risk of heart disease.

In one study, 9,000 British Civil Service workers (men and women, aged 35 to 55) were surveyed about different negative aspects in their close relationships. Even after taking into account weight, employment status, work stress and other health behaviors, participants who reported “adverse” close relationships had a 34% increased risk of developing heart problems.4

A 2016 study of 1,326 couples, who were married or co-habiting, supports this finding. Researchers found that negative relationship quality (as perceived by both members of the couple) was associated with increased blood pressure, a risk factor for heart disease.5

Being discriminating about with whom you choose to share your energy is also key to your health and well-being.

Here is what I learned about protecting my personal energy…

1.  Offer your advice and help (especially around health) only to those who truly want it and who are ready and willing to receive it—with appreciation and an open mind.

I learned this the hard way. When I tried to help a family member who wanted my help with her condition, I was shocked by the abusive ear-lashing she gave me …apparently, I did not tell her what she wanted/expected to hear (she valued conventional protocol over making simple food and lifestyle changes).

2.  Don’t measure your worth by people who don’t understand you.

Whether you start making healthier food choices; choose to be sober-curious by saying “no” to alcohol; or, decide to quit smoking, your choices can invite judgement, criticism and, sometimes, derision, from family, friends and colleagues who don’t understand. Maybe they stop including you at functions. Maybe YOU discover that your love of cheesecake, margaritas or a smoke was the only thing you had in common. Let it go. It is human nature to resist change. Don’t let the opinions/judgements of people who don’t understand your journey distract you or pull you down. You are on a different path. Connect with those who can support and appreciate you as evolve and work through your stuff.

3.  Sometimes, it’s about them—not you!

Don’t take negative commentary personally, especially from someone who hasn’t walked in your shoes. Last summer, someone to whom I was once close, said disparagingly, “You are ‘obsessed’ with your health”. That cut deep. I manage my autoimmune disease through regular blood work; food choices; lifestyle habits; and mindset. When I don’t make mindful choices, I feel it…by way of zero energy, brain fog, low mood, viral infections and other symptoms. I do not need to justify why my health is a priority. I realized, too, that this comment came from someone who lacked empathy, curiosity and appreciation for my personal health journey—and who also had anxiety and fear around their own unaddressed health issues. Projection. Transference. Yep….sometimes, it’s about them—not you!

4.  Set healthy boundaries …understand who and what makes YOU feel energized, balanced and vital.

Saying “NO” politely but firmly to people or situations that make you feel overextended, uncomfortable, resentful or simply bad about yourself, is empowering and one of the best forms of self-care.

5.  Release toxic, energy-draining relationships.

This is a big one! Toxic relationships can drain us of energy; make us question our own self-worth; and take a toll on our health. These might be relationships where you make all the effort and there is little or no reciprocity. You might be in a relationship with someone who lacks the ability to identify with and understand how YOU feel; this might be  a relationship with a narcissistic-type personality, where it’s all about the other’s person’s constant need for attention, praise and/or sense of entitlement.  Or, any relationship where you are constantly disparaged, criticized or belittled. I’ve done a lot of work here. Start identifying, acknowledging and saying “good-bye” to toxic relationships.


1,2 American Society on Aging.
3   Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. June 20, 2017
4  JAMA Internal Medicine. Oct. 8, 2007
5  The Journals of Gerontology Series B.  Volume 71, Issue 5, September 2016, pp. 775–785

Hi, I’m Kathryn Matthews. As a Board Certified Functional Health Coach, I help clients reclaim their energy, vitality and well-being. I want you to feel empowered about taking charge of YOUR health! To learn more, see About Kathryn.

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