Are your friends and family willing to listen to you when you talk about your problems? Or do you feel like you would look foolish if you tried to talk about your feelings to others? Research has found that having emotional support and someone who will listen can help prevent cognitive decline.
The importance of emotional support for brain health
There is a well-known Taiwanese song called Who Knows What’s on My Mind, which begins with the line: “If I don’t say what’s on my mind, who will know?” This is probably a feeling that many people have experienced nowadays.
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Even though communication is now very advanced, many people tend to feel lonely and have no one to confide in. They feel there is no one they can talk to or don’t know how to express their inner pains. It is important to change this before it is too late. As people get older, their brains will undergo aging or may experience neurological changes such as Alzheimer’s disease. Having someone to listen to and provide emotional support can reduce the damage caused by these changes in the brain.
This has been proven in studies. Research published this year in JAMA Network Open, a leading international medical journal, suggests that having friends and family who are willing to listen to you can help you develop cognitive resilience and slow the decline of the brain caused by aging or diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
The study followed 2,171 volunteers aged 45 or older who did not suffer from dementia or stroke themselves. The researchers found that each unit of brain volume lost in people who lacked a listener reduced cognitive function by 0.17 units, or the equivalent of about 4.25 years of cognitive deterioration.
The importance of cognitive function, which involves the ability to learn, think, reason, solve problems, make decisions, remember, and pay attention, cannot be underestimated. Even if brain volume is reduced by one unit, the more emotional support a person has, the less the impact on cognitive function and the less pronounced the brain decline.
This finding suggests that when we are willing to talk about our worries and even take the initiative to maintain good human interactions and make more close friends, there are great benefits to brain health.
According to clinical psychologist Ke Junming of the Kaohsiung Rehabilitation Institute of the Ministry of Justice in Taiwan, finding someone willing to listen when we talk about our worries is highly correlated with the prevention of dementia. Avoiding depression can also prevent dementia, and this is something closely related to having supportive listeners in our life as well.
The benefits of having a listener for cognitive function
Joel Salinas, a neuroscientist at NYU Langone Medical Center and lead researcher of the study on cognitive resilience, pointed out that having a listener is not only good for maintaining cognitive function, but also for reducing any health or aging-related damage, including damage caused by stress hormones or vascular disease.
Modern people generally experience a lot of stress, and if there is no one to listen to their troubles or they are unwilling to confide in someone, it can cause a person to become overwhelmed, leading to a long-term imbalance in both physical and mental function.
According to Ke Junming, more and more people are suffering from autonomic nervous system disorders, which are closely related to stress. If someone is willing to listen and even give advice or support, the process of emotional catharsis can have a stress-reducing effect, as the mind can affect the body.
For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, some patients who contracted the disease and then transmitted it to those around them would experience feelings of guilt. These patients would be provided with psychological counseling during their hospital stay, with clinical psychologists intervening to help alleviate anxiety. This process reduces psychological stress. “With any treatment, the mental wellbeing of the person is very important to consider. If they are in a good psychological state, the physical treatment will be more effective,” said Ke.
Nurture the willingness to seek support
This study not only demonstrates the importance of taking the initiative to talk to someone about what’s on your mind, but also shows that when people care and listen to the worries of their friends and family around them, it can have a great benefit on their physical and mental health.
For example, we know that when children spend time talking and listening to their elderly parents, it can slow down their cognitive aging and prevent dementia. At the same time, establishing good parent-child communication and helping children cultivate a willingness to talk about their problems when they are young will help their physical and mental health as adults in the future.
“The willingness to find someone to talk to about our problems needs to be cultivated,” says Ke. “I serve in a prison which is full of drug addicts, and when asked why they took drugs in the first place, they generally say that they were under too much pressure and had no one to talk to.”
These drug users range from doctors, nurses, professors, teachers, and engineers, and are mostly drug addicts due to work pressure, emotional stress, workplace bullying, and other factors. “They don’t know how to talk to their families because they are not used to talking about their problems and they are afraid that they will be considered losers if they talk about them,” Ke said. Instead, they bottle up their feelings and then if they happen to encounter someone encouraging them to try using drugs in order to vent and relax, they will do it. It’s a pity that this kind of topic doesn’t get much attention.
Being a supportive listener
A supportive listener should avoid certain behaviors in order to make the conversation a good one. Here are a few ways to show concern and listen to worries.
- If the person doesn’t want to talk, don’t try to force him/her to do so, just show care first. Let the person know that you are ready to listen if needed.
- Choose a place where you can relax and talk freely, avoiding noisy spaces where many people may interfere. You should be sure to pick a time of day when you are feeling alert and are not sleepy.
- Concentrate on listening and don’t ask questions. During the process, you can make eye contact or hand them tissues if they cry, pat them on the shoulder, etc. Be sure to avoid playing with your phone. Instead, give the other person your full attention.
- After listening, restate what the person just said. This will let them know you understood them. Then offer reassurance or support.
- Follow up by asking the person how he/she feels, what he/she wants to do, and if help is needed.
- After listening, you can give positive feedback but avoid responding negatively. This can make the other person feel worse and more stressed. Sometimes it is not necessary to give advice because the person just needs to be heard.
- It’s important for the listener to remain detached and not let their emotions get the better of them while listening.
Translated by Audrey Wang