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Cultivating Mental Health: The Importance of Social Relationships

Did you know that if you plant compatible plants near each other, they can mutually benefit from each other? Together, they can enhance growth, repel pests, and even improve in flavor. In essence, they help each other to stay safe and to thrive. That’s beautiful, isn’t it? It’s called “Companion Planting”, and its just one example of nature showing us that we are better together.


Why Social Relationships Are Important to Health


Human relationships are 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 in a nurturing relationship, both parties tend to invest 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.


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.

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

  • 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)


How to Cultivate 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. 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. 

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.

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.

Practice effective communication. Make the most of your social opportunities by practicing effective communication skills. Be an attentive listener, practice relaxed and open body language, show empathy and/or understanding, respond with understanding and/or empathy, communicate clearly and effectively.

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.


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