It is said that social connections are necessary for our mental health because people need to feel like they belong to groups and communities.
Why connections are important for our mental health
Social connections are more than just superficial relationships. Friends, family, and even acquaintances provide us with love, empathy, and understanding in ways that few other things in our lives can. It has been found that having strong social connections in adulthood improves mental health by reducing feelings of loneliness, increasing feelings of self-worth, and providing a sense of belonging. Those with close friends are less likely to be depressed or anxious.
The human brain is a social organ. It consists of cells, called neurons, which either form or receive connections from other neurons. When we make connections with others–whether they be friends, family, mentors, teachers, colleagues, etc.–we share information and thoughts that stimulate new neurological connections in our brains (source). These new neural connections appear to promote healthier minds and healthier bodies as well (source).
Changing society (it’s not what it used to be)
In a society where we are more connected than ever before thanks to the internet, the question is: Why are social connections important for our mental health? In a world where we can contact someone from halfway across the world instantly, shouldn’t that mean that the need to feel socially connect is no longer essential?
If anything, it has reminded us that it is not simply the quantity or ease of social connections that matters, but also the value and quality that we place upon those relationships.
This doesn’t mean that we need to have physical connections with someone for it to be meaningful. But it probably means that there is some sort of connection that is established over time, through our interests, relationships, obligations, and so on. When we think of social connections, they’re visible in the form of having strong ties within a community or your social network.
Brain development and social relationships
Social connections are important for our mental health because they provide us with vital support that keeps us mentally, physically, and emotionally healthy.
Positive social connections can significantly decrease depression, anxiety, and stress (source). These negative effects of social isolation are even more pronounced in children. For instance, research has found that children who feel neglected or unloved by their parents often experience developmental issues (source).
Relationships with others
Relationships with others are important for our mental health, for both the person who connects with someone and the other person in the relationship. Social connections can even sometimes be more significant than food or sleep. Researchers who studied loneliness have found that it can increase stress, illness, and even death rates (source). To avoid these negative outcomes, it’s essential to find ways to feel socially connected to other people.
How to feel socially connected to others
You might experience moments of loneliness or isolation where you feel that you are disconnected from everyone around you. When this happens, it can be helpful to take a step back and look at all the ways in which you are connected to the people around you. You may be connected through family, friendships, work, and other relationships.
There are different types of social interactions. These include but are not limited to:
- Colleagues (don’t forget ex-colleagues!)
- People you went to school/college/university with
- Group/society members (such as clubs, or places of religious practice)
- Neighbours and local community
How to make social connections
Many people think that the new era of social media is robbing us of meaningful connections with other people. However, we can still make connections if we use social media beneficially.
Social media can be a great tool to get in touch with friends and family members who live outside our neighbourhood or city. It’s also possible to find groups and communities that align with your interests.
That said, social media is not without its criticism. There is growing evidence that heavy social media use correlates with poorer mental health. And a growing realization of the negative impact that algorithms have on our ability to access reliable sources of information.
It can also be worth exploring ways to make new connections in person. During a pandemic, this can be incredibly difficult, yet perhaps there are reading groups, sports clubs, cooking collectives, shared gardens, comedy classes, yoga sessions, walking societies, coding evenings, or all manner of other activities that could be taking place near where you live. This might not always be accessible to people, based on the locality, or the limits of their bodies, so finding similar activities that take place online can be worth exploring.
Mental health and social connections
Physical and mental health are interconnected. When we have good physical health, we may find that this supports our mental health.
It is important to keep both aspects of our wellbeing in mind when making decisions that will affect our quality of life. Studies have found that people who lack social connections exhibit a higher risk for mental and physical health problems than those with healthy social connections (source). In this case, just like with physical activity, you may decide that it is worth it to invest in your social life, even if it is a time-consuming activity.
The difficulty of making new social connections
As we’ve explored, strong social connections are a key pillar of support for our mental well-being. It can be difficult making new social connections because of time constraints, social pressures, or other reasons. One study found that seniors who don’t have time to meet new people are at higher risk for mental health problems than those who do have time to meet new people.
Meeting new people also means that we need to step outside our comfort zone. However, it’s important to understand that even if we are uncomfortable with a social situation, it doesn’t mean we can’t benefit from it. We sometimes feel scared of rejection. This might be because we have a desire to be liked, or because we place high expectations upon ourselves to get things right. Whatever these feelings are, it can be helpful to allow them to be just as they are – a part of the discomfort that appears for many people in trying something new.
Talking about this with a therapist may be helpful if you struggle in such settings.
Social connections are important for our mental health because they provide us with a sense of belonging and security. We often face difficult situations in life and we need others to lean on when we’re down, to share in our happiness when we’re up, and just to be there for us when we need it most. Finding the time to strengthen your existing beneficial social connections, and perhaps finding ways to make new ones, can be an incredible act of self-care.
Photo by Helena Lopes
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