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Study links supportive friendships to positive physiology

On the fourth floor of the University of Missouri ⁠— Columbia Peer Relations Lab sits a room with a cushy couch, faux plants that never wilt and abstract autumn-toned paintings. The warm colors and cozy atmosphere are somewhat offset by the little black camera sitting high upon a shelf among the leaves of a small monstera deliciosa. The room welcomes visitors frequently; and its camera watches their interactions closely, all in the name of research.

University of Missouri ⁠— Columbia developmental psychologist Dr. Amanda Rose and her PhD student Sarah Borowski have explored the relationship between physiological reactions and certain behaviors in adolescent friendships through Borowski’s dissertation study. Borowski’s developmental psychology study collects data on pairs of same-sex, similarly aged close friends in eighth through 10th grade. The researchers are about halfway through the process ⁠since they want to amass 200 responses and have 120 so far.

Borowski’s inspiration for her dissertation study came from previous experiments she had done. She obtained her master’s degree at the College of William and Mary where she did a thesis project on how adolescent peers talk about problems and learn about emotions from one another. 

“Something I became interested in from my background in emotions was the idea of coregulation,” Borowski said. “We regulate our emotions on our own all day, every day. [For example, if] someone’s driving slow in front of you, you get angry; you have to control your anger. But no one has ever looked at coregulation in the context of friendships, and one great way to look at coregulation is by measuring physiology. So that was kind of the starting point for this project.”

Borowski’s continued focus on developmental psychology led her to Dr. Rose for her study. During their two-hour lab visit, the two companions will complete different tasks so Borowski can record their bodys’ different physiological responses. First, she will ask the pair to sit alone to gauge their resting state vitals.

“Research shows that your physiological reactions when you’re just sitting quietly shows your ability to regulate and manage your emotions,” Borowski said. “We want to see how those individual regulatory capacities relate to behaviors and [the friends’] ability to provide support.”

To observe these exchanges of encouragement, Borowski then prompts them to talk about two different topics: problems in their relationship and party planning. Both of these conversations reveal the behaviors they might display; the party planning task serves as a positive comparison of supportive behavior to the possible unsupportive behavior that comes with discussing personal problems.

The time and extent to which adolescents will talk about their issues varies, but these differences in conversation help explain their behavior as well. The experimenters want to see how the pairs normally interact when talking about their issues; some finished talking before the 16-minute time allotment was finished, and others kept discussing their problems as they walked to the car after the study. 

How much they talk about problems is relevant, but also how they talk about problems. Do they make each other feel better or just make the big problems seem even bigger?

Dr. Amanda Rose, University of Missouri — Columbia psychology professor

In order to explain exactly how the teens react to each other, the psychologists tracked physiological changes in addition to computer questionnaire responses. Dr. Rose said these changes in the body show a person’s true sentiments more accurately than his or her surface expressions, actions and dialogue.

The developmental study measures vagal tone, which refers to a cranial nerve called the vagus nerve, according to the scientific research journal Frontiers. Vagus nerves are a part of the parasympathetic nervous system, the bodily system that regulates and conserves energy in response to stress. Low vagal tone is associated with poor emotional regulation in children and is a marker of sensitivity to stress, according to the Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, a publication of the American Psychological Association. The parasympathetic nervous system, also called the “rest and digest” response, according to Harvard University affiliate Harvard Health, acts as a brake to calm the body down to its natural state after it experiences danger or stress.

“You can’t really provide support or feel happy and close to a friend unless your body is calm,” Borowski said. “For example, if you’re my friend, and I say something supportive to you, we should see that vagal tone increases because your body is calming down and you’re feeling supported and comfortable.”

Borowski assesses vagal tone by looking at indicators of stress such as increased heart rate and respiration through sensors on the collarbones, torso and fingertips. She also looks at the sympathetic nervous system, the body’s “fight or flight” response that prepares the individual for danger under conditions of stress, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. She records skin conductance ⁠— the momentary phenomenon where skin becomes a better conductor of electricity, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab. In this particular study, Borowski tests skin conductance by placing lab devices called electrodes on a person’s fingertips, which measure sweat. 

“When something’s stressful, your body is on high alert,” Borowski said, “and so we can use the skin conductance measure to see if someone’s upset or stressed.”

The goal of the project is to connect the behavior of one person to the physiological response of the other. For instance, if one friend’s heart rate, respiration and skin conductance indicate stress, Borowski hypothesizes the other will become upset. She and Dr. Rose aim to link the responses to conditions like depression and anxiety. They anticipate positive physiology and closer friendship quality in adolescents who have helpful interactions.

“We’re expecting that kids that have higher levels of vagal tone … are going to show more supportive behaviors during their interactions,” Borowski said. “We also expect that supportive behaviors during interactions will relate to specific changes in physiology, [and] that unsupportive behaviors like teasing or even just not responding to a friend will have a negative effect on physiology.”

The negative actions Borowski speaks of occur among students, and people like RBHS guidance counselor Carrie McKee are equipped to mediate. McKee, along with principals and other guidance counselors in Columbia Public Schools, is trained in restorative practices to help students with problems. Restorative practices is a social science that studies how to strengthen relationships between individuals, according to the International Institute for Restorative Practices, an organization that develops theory and conducts experiments around the science. The philosophy of restorative thinking puts community and internal motivation over punishment and reward.

“When students are going through a rough patch, we can use a restorative [practice] to help with the situation,” McKee said. “It involves communication on both ends and willingness to be open with each other.”

Dr. Rose and Borowski plan to send questionnaires to participants a year after the study to see if they have maintained their companionship and tie the results to their previous behavior. They want to track if the pairs are still close to each other or if they even remain a part of each others’ lives. They will link the future responses to the results of the study to test a hypothesis: supportive interactions lead to higher friendship quality. This part of the study will add to research that says healthy, stable personal relationships are important to the development in adolescents.

“In childhood, most people are very embedded in their families and get a lot of support from parents. Then for most of adulthood, there’s often a romantic partner who’s really the person who you’re closest to and turn to in your [times of] distress,” Dr. Rose said. “And then adolescence is this really cool in-between period where really friends take on this particularly close role and help you kind of grow up … and provide a bridge from relying on your parents to more adult life.”

Senior Vincent Leloux, a foreign exchange student from Germany and current RBHS student, understands how beneficial close relationships can be. He has only lived in the U.S. since the beginning of the school year but said he has a strong group of friends who demonstrate positive behavior.

Leloux lived in a town smaller than Columbia before he moved, and because of this, he never got the chance to branch out and meet new people. Although he wouldn’t say moving to a new country was easy, he said he is thankful he has been able to find a community where he feels he belongs.

“I know another exchange student is leaving because she had a pretty rough and hard time,” Leloux said. “So this shows me again how important it is and also how thankful I am for having opportunities [with] these friends.”

About a year ago, Borowski and Dr. Rose submitted and received a grant from the National Institutes of Health which they use to pay each of the volunteers $20 and fund their research, the first of its kind.

No other study has looked at the specific connections between behaviors and physiological changes. So it’s kind of an important first step.

Sarah Borowski, University of Missouri — Columbia graduate student

Borowski and Dr. Rose said it is standard for a study of this caliber to write and publish three to five papers explaining their hypotheses and results once it is completed. They will also look for opportunities to talk with school administrators to use their findings in practical applications. 

“When you read [a] textbook, even if the textbook is kind of new, the studies are usually five or 10 years-old, so we really like to be able to share with parents and teachers the findings that are brand new as well,” Dr. Rose said. “And so hopefully they can kind of incorporate that … , both with kids who are struggling a little bit in terms of friendships and for kids who are struggling more in terms of home, really understanding that having really positive friendships can be a really protective factor that can help.”

Borowski also plans to hand her results off to guidance counselors. McKee said she and other counselors help their students by giving not only academic, but social-emotional nourishment as well. This year, RBHS’ main protocol for educating students about healthy relationships is a multi-tier system of supports model that administration implemented in freshman advisory classes. 

“We have paired each advisory class with a senior mentor and senior advisor,” McKee said. “They work with freshmen on building relationships through games and activities within the class. Students also get information through health classes about healthy relationships.”

In order to expand and add to the present counseling techniques, Dr. Rose and Borowski said they hope to use their newfound knowledge of friendship behavior after the study to identify “very specific ways” adolescents can offer comfort to a companion with a problem. They said they want to develop methods that help adolescents emotionally in the short-term and help prevent depression and anxiety in the future. The psychologists aim to move beyond a global one-size-fits-all support system for adolescents and instead target specific ways to help them cope with internal and external problems.

“There’s a fair amount of work on physiology with parents and children, especially young children,” Dr. Rose said. “There’s also a fair amount of work on physiology among married couples, especially in terms of conflict. But this was really kind of a missing piece of the puzzle.”

Do you notice trends from the study in your own friendships? Let us know in the comments below.

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1 comment

Isabella Perkins January 29, 2020 at 11:35 am

This is so interesting to read about and see the types of connections that are within my own friend group. You never really pay attention to how your friends affect how you feel and reading this really opened my eyes. I did this experiment with a friend and it was interesting to see how they use the information for their research.

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