Social connections for your mental health – why we must prioritise them

In our busy lives it's all too easy to neglect friendships, family and community. In the real world, not just online. And yet, from personal and professional experience I know all too well just how important social connections are for our mental health. This post is a bit of a love letter for them.
social connections for your mental health

Social connections are just so incredibly for good mental health. We humans all have a natural need to belong, to feel supported, valued, and socially connected to others. 

As the journalist Johann Hari, with his own experience of depression, wrote: 

“Humans need tribes as much as bees need a hive.” 

And yet we humans have never been lonelier. Over thousands of years we have evolved in communities, and only survived because of co-operations. We cooked for one another and looked after one another. We killed a predator together and not on our own. You and I exist because of all those many, many humans before us co-operating and doing things together. 

But in the last 100 years, things have changed… a lot. Communities have fallen apart as we as individuals have started shutting our doors. Instead of doing things together, we now still do the same activities, but each of us does them separately in our own homes. And as our lives have turned inwards, our sense of belonging or even having friends has plummeted.

The structures for looking out for each other - from the family to the neighbourhood - fell apart. We embarked on an experiment - to see if humans can live alone.

Johann Hari

The cost of loneliness

The effects of loneliness are striking. Feeling deeply lonely leads to a very high release of the stress hormone cortisol. So high that it’s comparable to experiencing a physical attack.

Loneliness is in some way even considered deadly and appears to have the same effect on your health as being obese. 

And in a study done on rats it was found that rats who were raised in isolation developed 84 times the number of breast cancer tumours as rats who had been raised in groups. 

Brain scans on people who described themselves as lonely showed a much faster reaction to potential threats than people who didn’t describe themselves as lonely. Why does that matter? Because it shows that loneliness increases anxiety and you becoming more suspicious of any social contact. 

Plus, loneliness often precedes feelings of depression, rather than being the result of it. 

Lonely people are scanning for threats because they unconsciously know that nobody is looking out for them, so no one will help them if they are hurt. [....] but to help a depressed or severely anxious person out of it, they need more love, and more reassurance, than they would have needed in the first place.
The tragedy (...) is that many depressed and anxious people receive less love, as they become harder to be around. Indeed, they receive judgement, and criticism, and this accelerates their retreat from the world.

Johann Hari

You're not alone yet still feel lonely

Do you know the feeling of being surrounded by other people yet you still feel lonely?

Loneliness is not about the physical absence of other people. It’s about sharing something with another human being or a group that is of value and meaning to both of you. 

Perhaps you’re a young mother and whilst you regularly go out and see people (and are obviously always around your child or children all day and night long) you might still feel profoundly lonely. 

Or perhaps you work endless hours a week in a high-stress job or business and you’re constantly in touch with other people, but these connections are not what you’re craving. With the constant hustle and bustle, we have little time or energy for friends, family or community.

Yet we all have a natural and basic need to feel seen and heard, understood and supported. We want to share life’s joys and sorrows with others and walk on this path with others.

 

More than anything else, being able to feel safe with other people defines mental health. Safe connections are fundamental to meaningful and satisfying lives.

Bessel Van Der Kolk

snippets from my tiny island life

I moved to the Isles of Scilly nearly 8 years ago and live on one of the smaller islands with about 140 other people (plus the tourists in the summer). Because of our geographic isolation and the cost of getting to the mainland, I can’t just leave the islands for a day trip here or a quick visit there. I know everyone here on the island and can in fact tell you who’s walking in the distance because of the colour of their jacket or because of the way they walk. Living here on this island means living in a small community.

I remember talking to a friend who at the time was living in a tiny village on Dartmoor – again a rural place. I commented on how similar our lives inside these tiny communities must be, but my friend disagreed. Everyone has cars, she said, so people drive to all sorts of places. We don’t all know each other and we don’t say hello to each other either. You don’t need to anymore. 

The end of slow living has cost us dearly in terms of our connectedness to each other. 

The other day I was talking to one of the older residents on the island here. She was telling me how the men on the island used to meet in their sheds all the time and socialise that way. When the first household had a TV, people used to gather to watch sports together. But then everyone starting having TVs and that’s put an end to most of the socialising. 

So even on a tiny island, where this sense of community is still very strong, social connections are eroding and have done so for the past few decades. 

Connecting with others is no longer something that is simply a given way of living. It’s something we need to consciously seek or else we’ll suffer from the consequences. 

Remembering the importance of your social connections for your mental health

It’s so easy to get caught up in work and other responsibilities, to take time out to spend it with other people. Even harder to truly slow down and actually listen to one another. But as social connections are so crucial to our mental health, how can you make sure to have enough of them in your day-to-day / week-by-week living?

As GPs and doctors have started to use “social prescribing”, it’s important to look at our own lives and see how satisfied we are with our sense of belonging and support. And to not just do that from an individualistic approach but rather asking yourself: How can I contribute to something other than myself as well? Helping somebody has great benefits for your own levels of happiness too.

Are you satisfied with your level of connectedness to others? Or would you like to increase it?

Of course we don’t all have close friends or a family or group to turn to. And if that’s you right now, just remember that loneliness is so widespread that the person next door to you might be feeling just the same longing for connection as you do. 

Building friendships can take a long time and you don’t always need to have the most amazing time with others to feel less lonely in your day-to-day. Simply sharing a moment of something quite insignificant together can make you feel better. 

We’re all on a journey and if we can start to reconnect and share our paths just a little bit more again, I bet we’d be seeing a lot fewer diagnoses of depression and anxiety. 

If you are looking to improve your mood and mental health naturally, and would the support from somebody who’s done that before, simply get in touch. I have created this whole business as a way to help other women overcome depression too – without having to struggle on their own. 

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