Mental health: To love and be loved, the essential role of love in mental wellbeing

To love and be loved, the essential role of love in mental wellbeing

As discussed in previous articles, mental health is defined as a state of well-being in which an individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a meaningful contribution to their community.

Our ability to connect genuinely with others, to give and receive care and concern in secure, loving relationships is a key part of mental wellbeing.

Human beings are not naturally independent loners but we are interdependent, relational beings that thrive when connected with others.

This love can be between parents and children, grandparents and their children and grandchildren, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins, husband and wife, friends and colleagues.

Love can help heal emotional wounds and prevent mental distress. However lack of genuine love in our communities is possibly contributing to rising rates of mental health challenges.

Can a lack of love cause mental ill health?

Our world has become highly digitally connected yet as people we are becoming more and more emotionally distant and disconnected. Loneliness is becoming pandemic.

 This emotional and social disconnect and love deficiency has a detrimental effect on our wellbeing.

Love starved children develop both emotional and physical developmental problems struggling to form meaningful emotional bonds into adulthood.

Some severely neglected and love- starved children can become socially withdrawn and irritable, struggling to connect with caregivers and rarely seeking comfort from others.

This condition is known as reactive attachment disorder.

Other severely neglected and love- starved children may become disinhibited and socially overfamiliar even with strangers as they seek comfort from anyone and anything, this condition is known as disinhibited social engagement disorder.

Love starved, socially isolated adults can also develop mental health challenges.

Depression has been linked to loneliness and social isolation.

A lack of meaningful relationships, where one can share the burdens of life increases the risk of stress, anxiety and depression.

When we feel unloved and unwanted, we may also turn to alcohol and substance use for comfort.

Unresolved or complicated grief after the loss of close loved ones can leave us feeling abandoned, unloved and uncared making it difficult to recover from the loss.

Are you struggling to love and to be loved?

  • Do you feel like no one is aware of you and no one ‘has your back’?
  • Do you feel alone and isolated, like you do not belong?
  • Do you feel unlovable?
  • Do you feel unworthy of love?
  • Do you struggle to connect meaningfully with others or struggle to maintain meaningful friendships and relationships?

Can love be harmful to our mental health?

Unhealthy forms of ‘love’ do exist and can be toxic and detrimental to our mental wellbeing. These include:

  • Love in disrespectful, abusive relationships
  • Obsessive or possessive love
  • Love where we do not maintain healthy emotional boundaries
  • Love that is consistently not reciprocated
  • Co-dependency, where we enable destructive behaviour in our loved ones

Can love heal us emotionally?

Genuine love and concern is a powerful emotion that can have a positive, life-giving effect on our physical and emotional health. Love and connection with others causes us to release a hormone called oxytocin which helps us to bond emotionally.

Oxytocin has also been found to decrease stress and anxiety and even improve immunity.

Being able to love and be loved helps us to be connected meaningfully and build a supportive community for ourselves and for others where we can share our burdens and challenges, give and receive affirmation and support.

Loving and caring for others helps us be less self-absorbed and self-aware and live outside of ourselves which can help us regulate our emotions better.

 Social connection is a key part of management of depression, anxiety, substance use problems and other mental health challenges and social support is a key part of recovery from all physical illness.

How can I love and receive love better for my mental wellbeing?

  1. Value the people and relationships in your life. We often neglect relationships in the ‘busy-ness’ of life yet we need people to live life with and to thrive.
  2. Learn or ‘re-learn’ how to trust. Being able to trust is a key part of being able to love. Some of us have been betrayed and struggle to trust and thus struggle to form genuine loving relationships. If you are struggling from the effects of betrayal, seek help to overcome this and to be able to learn to trust again.
  3. Learn to communicate effectively. Many relationships breakdown due to poor or ineffective communication. We need to be able to communicate our thoughts, emotions, ideas, dreams with others in healthy, loving relationships.
  4. Be flexible and adaptable. Loving another human will require a reasonable level of compromise and some adaptation to the needs of another. A successful relationship will also require mental flexibility and the ability to work together to solve problems when they arise
  5. Learn to forgive. You cannot love without being willing to forgive and be merciful enough to give your loved one another chance of they have disappointed you. This, however, doesn’t mean you enable destructive behaviour. Where there is repeated, difficult, destructive behaviour in a relationship, seek help.
  6. Reciprocate. No healthy relationship can be one- sided. Just as we yearn for genuine love, care and concern, we need to give love, care and concern to maintain healthy relationships.

If you think that you or someone that you know maybe struggling with mental health challenge linked to a lack of love, please contact your nearest health care provider and get help.

Dr Chido Rwafa-Madzvamutse  is a consultant psychiatrist. Feedback on WhatsApp: +263714987729)

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