COLUMBUS, Ohio - Having a supportive friend with you during a stressful event may not always be good for your health.
Researchers found that women who had a same-sex friend present when they gave a stressful speech showed larger increases in cholesterol levels than did women who spoke without a friend.
Previous research has shown that blood cholesterol levels tend to rise during stress, and there is some evidence that even short-term rises in cholesterol are linked to increased risk of coronary heart disease over time.
"There are some situations in which social support helps reduce stress, but this study shows that friends may sometimes hurt more than they help," said Montenique Finney, co-author of the study and doctoral student in psychology at Ohio State University.
Finney conducted the study with Catherine Stoney, professor of psychology at Ohio State. Their research appears in the current issue of the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine.
A variety of studies have shown that social support reduces the risk of getting heart disease, Stoney said. One theory is that social support - such as the presence of friends - can reduce the physical responses to stress. But research results have been mixed.
In this study, 40 healthy college-aged women confronted a stressful situation: they had to give a three-minute speech for which they had just two minutes to prepare. Specifically, each woman was asked to discuss a hypothetical situation in which she would confront a store manager about her maid of honor dress, which had major faults, just one week before her best friend's wedding.
The speech was videotaped. Half the women had with them during the speech a same-sex friend whom they had selected. The other half gave the speech alone.
All the women had catheters inserted in their arms, from which blood was drawn for testing a few minutes before their speeches, during the speeches, and a few minutes afterward.
Blood tests showed that average cholesterol levels rose for both groups of women during their speeches - indicating they felt stressed. However, the change in cholesterol levels was more than three times larger for the women with a friend present as compared to those who gave the speech alone.
"The women had a greater stress response when their friends were with them," Stoney said. "This suggests that the women were not calmed by the presence of a friend."
However, that doesn't mean social support is always harmful, the researchers said. In fact, many studies have shown friends and other loved ones provide important protection from the dangerous effects of stress.
Women in this experiment may have felt stressed because they were in a situation in which their friends could be evaluating and criticizing their speech performance, the researchers explained. The true value of social support may be in high-stress situations in which a person does not have to perform.
"Having friends around during a job interview may not be helpful, but having them with you when you're undergoing a medical exam may be beneficial," Finney said. "The situation probably plays a key role."
Another factor in this study was that the friends were asked to lightly touch the women while they were giving the speech. Several studies have shown the presence of a friend who showed support using touch can reduce feelings of stress, but other studies have shown the opposite. Finney said the participants in this study may have felt less stress if their friends were present, but not touching them.
In addition to measuring total cholesterol levels in the participants, the researchers also measured changes in triglycerides and HDL cholesterol (the so-called "good" cholesterol.) For all participants, trigliceride levels rose when they gave their speeches, but there was no difference between the women with friends present and those who spoke alone. HDL cholesterol levels did not significantly change for any participants in the study.
Finney said men, or people from different cultural backgrounds, may respond differently to this experiment than did the women who were studied. The researchers plan future studies to investigate that possibility.
The study was supported in parts by grants from the National Institutes of Health.