Mental Health and Social Connections
Did you know that strong social connections can help you live longer and lower levels of anxiety and depression? When looking at how to best support your mental health, it’s important to recognize the positive role relationships can have, with supportive & quality connections heightening our sense of belonging and often giving us a sense of purpose or meaning.
According to a Stanford study, people who feel connected to others are likely to have greater empathy, confidence, and ability to trust & cooperate. In return, others are more likely to give trust and show compassion, creating a positive feedback loop that could greatly benefit society.
Social Connections & Physical Health
Social pain can be just as harmful to our bodies as physical pain, and emotions from social pain (such as loneliness) can literally seep into our tissues! This means that tending to our social connections can help protect us from chronic disease.
The Harvard Medical Journal found that connecting with others helped to relieve harmful levels of stress, which can be damaging to our digestive & nervous systems and detrimental to our long term health. Loneliness can even contribute to a lower life expectancy (American Psychological Association).
Lacking social connection carries a risk that is comparable to the risks associated with smoking up to 15 cigarettes per day, obesity, and physical inactivity! Just as much as our bodies need good sleep, movement, and sound nutrition – it also needs social connections.
Those without strong quality social relationships are at a much higher risk for:
- stress & inflammation, which can negatively impact bodily functions and the immune system
- cognitive and functional decline, which can lead to dementia
- decreased resistance to infection & recovery
Think of social connections as the medicine to alleviate the effects of loneliness on the mind & soul – and in turn the body. Have you ever been able to talk to an empathetic listener and felt like you were able to process your emotions – or just be heard? Have you experienced the moral support of someone who encourages positive behaviors and internal growth?
Creating connections can come in the form of support, perspective, advice, validation, or concrete help (Mental Health America). These types of connections can lead to confidence, self-assurance, and create a positive feedback loop for you to expand to others.
When seeking your social medicine, remember that it’s about quality, not quantity. Some relationships can create stress and conflict in our lives, so it’s important to identify and foster quality ones. Find people who make you feel valued and take your concerns seriously. You may need to look beyond your family to work colleagues, neighbors, others in your community – or perhaps even find connection online.
Social & Community Connections in a Virtual World
Social interactions are a critical component of our health, happiness, and longevity. The nature of these interactions are being reimagined as we navigate post-pandemic societal circumstances and the rise of social media & peer-to-peer technology.
Feeling connected is a subjective feeling, meaning it doesn’t have to be experienced in close physical proximity: community can also be experienced virtually (Psychology Today). Over the past decade we’ve seen the rise of gaming platforms, social media platforms, coaching services, and the creation of a ‘meta-verse’- all ways that people are finding connection virtually.
At the hands of the pandemic, schools & the workplace – two key platforms for building social connections – were forced to adapt to new ways of functioning & managing social interaction. While students learned to engage with distance learning and nurture relationships virtually, many adults began working remotely from home – both no longer in regular physical contact with others.
The saying ‘any tool is a weapon if you use it right’ comes to mind when I think of social media and the virtual playground. While it can enhance your feeling of community, it can also contribute to a feeling of isolation, loneliness or negativity. Digital connections can be healthy and affirming; but they can also be isolating and harmful to mental health.
Technology and virtual socialization can be tools of divisiveness and misinformation as much as connection. Viewing them as tools of connection – especially when in-person socialization isn’t possible – may help keep these options open as positive resources.
Prioritize Your WEllness
Did you know you can’t spell wellness without ‘we’? Here are some ways to prioritize social connections and your WEllness…
Start with #1:
Taking care of your physical and emotional well-being is the first step you need to take to make sure you maintain healthy connections. Give yourself time to reflect, be alone, or tend to your mind, body, and spirit. When you’re on track to being the best version of yourself, you’ll attract that energy back.
Prioritize social connections in your schedule.
Pick a day of the week and a time frame that you’ll devote to social connections. Meet up in person or give someone a call (not a text!).
Be proactive & open to meeting new people.
While introverts can sometimes have a tough time breaking the ice, a simple hello could end up making you a new friend, or at the very least, a friendly acquaintance.
Move with a friend.
See if someone wants to go for a walk, catch a yoga class, or check out a local park. Add some movement to your social time or make short walk dates that can fit into your schedule.
Show someone support.
Take the time to show those you interact with how much you care for them or appreciate them. Giving support can feel even better than experiencing it for yourself. Lend an ear to someone or give a compliment – be the start of a positive feedback loop!
Join a group.
There are all sorts of community groups out there you can be a part of – or enroll in a class that intrigues you. See if there’s a local book club, hiking group, or pottery class. Check out the local library, news publication, or utilize online platforms that organize get-togethers such as MeetUp.
Have fun in the kitchen.
Indulge your curiosity with a dish you’ve never made before and enjoy some nutritious food with company. Indian dishes? Dumplings? Give a crack at something new together! Use this time to strengthen your relationship or to get to know someone better.
American Psychological Association: So Lonely I Could Die
Harvard: The Health Benefits of Strong Relationships
Mental Health America: How Connections Help
Psychology Today: Social Connection Boosts Health, Even When You’re Isolated
Stanford: Connectedness & Health: The Science of Social Connection