To say my female friendships have been important is the understatement of the century. Those relationships, whether consciously or not, have changed the course of my life and mental well-being. From heavy topics like heartache and issues with family to everyday matters of confidence and support—the women in your life are paramount in helping maintain your happiness (and sanity).
That's not to say relationships with those who don't identify as female are any less meaningful. But that understanding and camaraderie reaches deep within your soul in a way unlike anything else. "There's certainly a mind-body connection," says Sanam Hafeez, PsyD, an NYC-based licensed clinical neuropsychologist. "The better we feel about our friendships and the more that friendships uplift, offer emotional support, encouragement, and humor, the better our health and well-being. It's common for people to prefer talking to friends in a time of crisis because instead of adding to their worry, friends can offer the pep-talk and shift toward optimism."
Once, I had a really bad night (like a crying and vomiting kind of night).Yes, it was about a boy—though that's beside the point. My best friend wasn't even there, but, I sent her a text message in the morning—"I'm not doing well,"—and that was all it took for an order of Chinese food to show up at my door. She knew me well enough to know I wanted to be alone and still feel her support from miles away. It's that kind of perceptive understanding, realizing how to love someone even when it's not the way you'd want to be loved, that fuels the strength and compassion at the heart of female friendships. Plus, there are studies to prove it.
Keep reading to find out which areas of your life are most benefited by your friendships and why.
Your Stress Levels
According to a UCLA study, women respond to stress with an outpouring of brain chemicals that cause us to make and maintain friendships with other women. "Until this study was published, scientists generally believed that when people experience stress, they trigger a hormonal cascade that revs the body to either stand and fight or flee as fast as possible," explains Laura Cousin Klein, PhD, and one of the study's authors.
Now, researchers believe women pull from a range of behavior that spans more than just fight or fight. "In fact, it seems when the hormone oxytocin is released as part of the stress responses in a woman, it buffers the fight or flight response and encourages her to tend children and gather with other women instead," Klein says. "When she actually engages in this tending or befriending, studies suggest that more oxytocin is released, which further counters stress and produces a calming effect. This calming response does not occur in men because testosterone—which men produce in high levels when they're under stress—seems to reduce the effects of oxytocin. Estrogen seems to enhance it."
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Your Body Positivity
Our stress levels are so intertwined with our happiness, our well-being, and our bodies. Emotional eating (or compulsive exercise) has more to do with our brains than our bodies in most cases, yet it takes a toll on our physical form. So, female friendships can be good for your body as well. "All of the attention, affection, and caring helps our brain make the happy kind of chemicals that nourish our hormones and adrenal glands (which steer our stress chemicals)," says Danielle LaPorte, the author of White Hot Truth.
"And then there's the body psychology that we get to share when the power of positive comparison comes into play," she continues. "When you see another woman in your life who loves her hips the way they are, then it helps you love your own soul package. And sometimes, your job as a friend is to declare someone's beauty on their behalf. 'Well, I think you're stunning. Because you're a woman, sister. And yeah, your butt looks great in those jeans.'"
Similarly, research has shown when you partner up with a friend, your wellness goals are reached more rapidly and the results are more long-lasting. "It's great to have a workout buddy or someone to do a fun exercise class or go power-walking with," says Hafeez. "When friends agree to a 30-day workout plan or to meditate daily, they hold each other accountable and root each other on."
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Your Mental Well-Being
"We feminine creatures are wired to nurture, connect, and bond—with each other, friends, our children, our lovers," says LaPorte. "Without these connections, we don't get nourished on a soul level. We get dry, cranky, bereft—the bad kind of lonely. Our perspective of ourselves fogs up. We need friends to reflect back to us who we are. We need to pay attention to friends so we can know how good it feels to make a difference in someone's life. And, of course, love." A study done at Harvard Medical School found the more friends women have, the more likely they are to feel content in their life. In fact, results from the study revealed an absence of friends can be as detrimental to your health as being overweight or smoking cigarettes.
The time you spend together doesn't have to be particularly formal to be special, either. "We just hang out and eat hummus and and report in, one at a time," notes LaPorte. "There have been boyfriends, weddings, splits, miscarriages, babies, bankruptcies, and career booms. We mostly just listen. And cheerlead. Sometimes we swap clothes and books. We'll never stop listening to each other because the essence of all friendship is love. You know those moments when you're laughing with your girls? That's the fuel you need for getting into the world and speaking up, and out, and proud. That's the spirit of sisterhood. And if you want to live––and heal, and give—I suggest you hold on to those friendships for dear life."
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Do you have any inspiring stories about your female friendships? Leave them in the comments below, and peep the body product that helped calm me (and my anxiety).