The physiological effects of social relationships

Leaving aside for a moment the fact that, for humans, social signals (like other stimuli) are subject to various forms of complex processing that give meaning to them, social signals can be physiological regulators in their own right, and this regulation starts from birth. For example, the presence of a mother and the way she interacts with her infant have major impacts on the infant's physiological states (Hofer, 1994) and brain maturation (Schore, 1994, 2001). There is increasing evidence that depression in new mothers affects the interactional styles between infant and mother, such as holding, comforting, and looking at the infant, and these can have serious impacts on infant development (Murray & Cooper, 1997). Moreover, unresolved abuse issues or neglect in a mother can have a major impact on her interactional style with her own child (Liotti, 2000; Sloman et al., 2003).

Miller & Fishkin (1997) review the evidence on how close adult-adult bonds evolved with physiologically regulating impacts on the mood, stress, sex hormones, and immune systems of participants (see Cacioppo et al., 2000; Zeifman & Hazan, 1997). There is good evidence that living in supportive and caring relationships has many physiological benefits for the stress and immune systems (Cacioppo et al., 2000; Uchino et al., 1996). Roy et al. (1998) found that social support moderates physiological stress responses to life events. Attachment, and affectionate and supportive relationships, then, are powerful physiological regulators influencing stress hormones, PA and NA, and other processes in interactional patterns between participants. Social relationships are not just sources of rewards and punishments, and sources for schema development; they are also sources of physiological regulation (McGuire & Troisi, 1998a).

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