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The Importance of Social Relationships to Physical and Mental Health

 

Many of us threw caution to the wind and filled our holidays with family and friends - enjoying good conversation, exchanging hugs, ideas, and kind words of love and support. An invigorating and much needed dose of human interaction after nearly a year of oppressive social restrictions caused by COVID-19. But, sadly, the COVID virus did not vanish with the dawning of a new year and we are advised to settle back into our “new normal” routine of mask wearing, social distancing, quarantining, etc.

It seems like a good time to talk about the importance of staying connected and nurturing our social relationships, even during the COVID pandemic …. Scratch that… ESPECIALLY during the COVID pandemic!

Why are social relationships important?

Human beings are inherently social, as are most animals. It is the way of nature. Heck, even ants exhibit social behaviors! Though, as humans, our social relationships are much more complex and fulfilling. They provide us with a sense of connection, purpose, support and, ultimately, overall better health and longevity.

Dozens of studies have shown that people who have fulfilling relationships with family, friends and community members are happier, have fewer health problems, and live longer.

Scientists have found that connecting with others helps relieve harmful levels of stress. As most of us are aware, chronic stress  can be detrimental to your mental and physical health, and contribute to many serious health problems. Some research even suggests that the act of caring for another person can release stress-reducing hormones for both the giver and receiver.

The alleviation of stress is not the only health benefit to come from having strong social connections.  We also learn healthy habits that help us to better care for ourselves, from others. Then of course, there is the obvious… when you are in a nurturing relationship, both parties tend to vest in each other’s health and well-being, as well as their own, because they want to stick around for each other.

Unfortunately, about a third of Americans lack these strong social relationships and, in turn, are putting their health at significant risk.

 

“Lacking social connection carries a risk that is comparable, and in many cases, exceeds that of other well-accepted risk factors, including smoking up to 15 cigarettes per day, obesity, physical inactivity, and air pollution.” - Julianne Holt-Lunstad, PhD, professor of psychology at Brigham Young University

 

What are the health risks for people lacking strong social relationships?

It has been well established that prolonged social isolation, even in healthy, well-functioning individuals, will eventually result in psychological and physical disintegration, and even death. [1]

People without strong quality social relationships are at a much higher risk for:[2]

  • Depression and anxiety
  • Elevated levels of stress and inflammation, which can adversely affect coronary arteries, gut function, insulin regulation, and the immune system
  • A wide range of diseases, including cardiovascular disease and cancer[3]
  • Cognitive and functional decline, including dementia
  • Decreased resistance to infection
  • Delayed recovery from injury, surgery, illness, etc.
  • Premature death (50% increased risk)

 

“Being connected to others socially is widely considered a fundamental human need — crucial to both well-being and survival. Extreme examples show infants in custodial care who lack human contact fail to thrive and often die, and indeed, social isolation or solitary confinement has been used as a form of punishment,” said Julianne Holt-Lunstad, PhD, professor of psychology at Brigham Young University. “Yet an increasing portion of the U.S. population now experiences isolation regularly.”

 

Why are so many people experiencing loneliness and lack of social connection?

Social isolation, loneliness, and relationship distress are on the rise. Even before COVID, the United States was experiencing a serious epidemic - a loneliness epidemic.

According to a Loneliness Study by AARP, approximately 42.6 million adults over age 45 in the United States were estimated to be suffering from chronic loneliness. Even more alarming, is that loneliness statistics are eerily similar for teens and young adults, age 18-22.

Some of the suspected factors for the rise in loneliness and social disconnect include:

  • The number of adults living alone has nearly doubled over the last 50 years
  • The number of single occupancy households worldwide is now greater than ever in recorded history (Euromonitor International, 2014)
  • Reduction in marriage rates, smaller household sizes, and increased rates of childlessness (United States Census Bureau, 2011)
  • Decreased community involvement, which is reflected by falling rates of volunteerism (U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Statistics, 2016)
  • An increasing number of Americans reporting no religious affiliation (Pew Research Center, 2015)
  • Decreased need for face-to-face interactions due to technology and social media

 

How can I build and nurture social relationships?

Now that you aware of the importance of social relationships to your physical and mental health, you may be wondering how you can build a strong social network. Here are some tips:

Start with existing relationships. Nurture relationships you already have by reaching out. It’s as easy as picking up the phone or sending a text, email or card.

Turn your work colleagues into friends. If you have someone at work that you feel you might have a connection with, then don’t be afraid to explore that relationship by engaging in conversation. You already have work in common, so see what else you might have in common.

Look for opportunities to be social. Granted COVID has put a damper on some social opportunities, but there are still opportunities to safely interact with new people, you just have to look for them. If you don’t feel comfortable being around a large group, then take part in activities involving smaller groups.

Join a group. Think of an activity you enjoy and see if there is a local group or club that meets to engage in that activity. If you aren’t ready to engage face to face with strangers, consider joining an online group or community that shares your interests.

Volunteer. Volunteering is a great way to meet people. Plus, volunteering has been proven to elevate mood and reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety. Though you may not be able to volunteer at a senior care center or hospital under the current COVID restrictions, you may still be able to volunteer at your local food bank, animal shelter, highway or park clean-up, etc.

Take a class. If you like to learn new things, explore classes being given at your local library, community center, or college outreach. You could even take a yoga class or some other type of exercise class. Taking a class gives you the opportunity to meet other people interested in self-improvement.

Get a pen pal. If you enjoy writing, you can correspond and build rewarding relationships through a pen pal program, such as Soldiers’ Angels, Paper Bridges, and more.

Practice effective communication. Make the most of your social opportunities by practicing effective communication skills. Be approachable – smile, make eye contact and maintain open body language. Draw people into conversation, ask open ended questions, actively listen, and ask follow-up questions. Be empathetic and supportive. Share similar interests, stories, and advice. 

 

If you have difficulties interacting with others or suffer from a mental health disorder that causes you to self-isolate, please reach out to a mental health professional for help.

 

References

[1] Debra Umberson and Jennifer Karas Montez, 2011, Social Relationships and Health: A Flashpoint for Health Policy, National Center for Biotechnology Information. Jan. 11, 2021. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3150158/

[2] Harvard Women's Health Watch, 2019, The health benefits of strong relationships, Harvard Health Publishing/Harvard Medical School. Jan. 11, 2021. https://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/the-health-benefits-of-strong-relationships

[3] James House, Karl Landis, Debra Umberson, 1988, Social Relationships and Health, The University of Utah. Jan. 11, 2021. http://www.math.utah.edu/~lzhang/teaching/1070spring2012/Daily%20Updates/examples/feb1/Social%20Relationships%20and%20Health.pdf

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