Have you ever considered that the quality of your relationships may be having a significant impact on the quality of your sleep? Almost every aspect of our lives is affected by our interactions with other humans around us. From the morning routine we share—even if we live alone and we’re just checking up on social media when we awake—to how we interact with our coworkers, to our commute home, the quality of our connections can impact how well we sleep.
But it’s not just your time awake that hinges on the strength and quality of your relationships. The positive correlation between rewarding, beneficial connections with people we care about—as well as those we inevitably meet in the workplace and in daily life—has been repeatedly demonstrated in numerous studies to affect both our wellness and our sleep. Conversely, research has shown that relationships in which we feel stress, or which are fraught with friction, have an actively detrimental effect on how soundly and restfully we sleep. Similarly, a lack of quality connection or a relatively isolated way of living can rub off on our sleep.
We need connection all our lives
Just as most parts of the day include strong chances we’ll experience one kind of social interaction or another, the contact we share with people around us is related to how well we sleep during every stage of our lives.
- Sleep is easier for children in a loving family. Supportive and loving family relationships are crucial for children’s mental and physical health—and this is particularly noticeable in how well they sleep. The sense of emotional security created by loving relationships within a family, and marital harmony between parents, has a strong effect on how well a child sleeps. And disruptions within the family—significantly, conflict within the parents’ or carers’ relationship—have been shown to cause problems both in the quality and quantity of a child’s sleep, sometimes for years after the fact.
- Is your relationship helping or hindering your sleep? For those of us who are partnered, how happy and safe we feel in our primary love relationship can be a strong indicator of the likelihood we will be troubled by sleep disturbances. In one study, it was found that women who describe themselves as unhappily married were 50% more likely to have trouble drifting off to sleep and staying asleep.
- Single life is no guarantee of peaceful rest. Not being in a relationship is a common theme among adults who cite loneliness as having an adverse effect on their slumber. Nearly one-quarter of single mothers participating in a 2011 research study said falling asleep was problematic for them. Forging closer friendships and placing a higher priority on the social relationships you do have can be an effective way to help you enjoy a restful and healthy night’s shut-eye if you don’t have a romantic partner.
- Close friendships can help you grow old gracefully. The link between sleep and longevity is nothing new, but did you know that seniors with active social lives enjoy more restful slumber? This is linked to stronger general health—in contrast with pensioners who sleep poorly as an apparent consequence of a more reclusive lifestyle. Recent research suggests that deep, sound sleep in older adults is facilitated by quality social interaction—and this, in turn, promotes healthy aging.
Why is meaningful connection so important for sleep?
Humans are social animals whose physiology and wellness is strengthened by a sense of belonging and community. Sharing intimate, strong, and meaningful relationships with friends, family members, and lovers is also crucial for our physical and mental health, as well as our ability to sleep well in particular. As is the case with the complexity of sleep problems, there are several interrelated mechanisms at work.
Firstly, a sense of deep connection with others contributes to our emotional security, and encourages us to relax. This state of ease releases the feel-good hormone serotonin, which is converted to the sleep hormone melatonin in the evening.
The bonding hormone oxytocin also helps to improve sleep. We produce oxytocin when we connect with others, and in particular with skin-to-skin touch. Research has repeatedly shown that oxytocin reduces the effects of cortisol, the stress hormone, which in turn helps promote sleep. So the more we bond with others, and the more affectionate we are, the better it is for our sleep.
Interacting with members of a community in which we feel “at home” or “one of the tribe” stimulates parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) activation, signaling that we are among people who will help protect us if danger appears unexpectedly. People with whom we feel relaxed to be with, encourage our nervous system to shift into “safe mode,” which is the state in which our body allows us to rest and digest.
Our PNS governs our ability to sleep well. The stronger our PNS, the more easily and deeply we sleep. Conversely, in a confrontational situation with others, when we’re in fight-or-flight mode, the sympathetic branch of our autonomic nervous system (SNS) is running the show. We cannot sleep when we are in SNS mode.
When we connect with others, our physiology changes in a way that is conducive to sleep health. The (often unconscious) feeling of safety, causes our heart rate to slow and our heart rate variability—which is the change in time interval between one heartbeat and the next—to improve. Even more than simply a person’s average heart rate, it is the complexities of heart rate variability that can provide detailed clues about a person’s state of health and the way they respond to stress.
This is why close, meaningful connections with people we care about are so important for us to feel safe, loved, and worthy—they are the building blocks of the emotional security that is vital to our well-being. The bonds we share with others are among the most crucial factors that make it possible for us to rest easy.