Regular activity, healthy nutrition and not smoking. These are some things we’ve all heard before are good for us. And it’s all true. But missing from this list is the need for social support. Social support is vital for our health and without it, our physical and mental wellbeing deteriorate.
Social Support and the COVID Pandemic
The current pandemic has taken a toll on people’s social support network. From both voluntary (purposely reducing contacts) and involuntary actions (government restrictions) we’re seeing less people. In the United Kingdom, it was estimated people reduced their contacts by 75%.
Not surprisingly, anxiety, depression and other mental health challenges have increased. Fear for one’s health and the uncertainty are likely the cause for much of this. During the summer as cases went down and restrictions lifted, people’s mental wellbeing improved. But now as cases climb and with the possibility of future lockdowns, mental health is again declining.
People with higher social support have proven to be more resilient even during self-isolation. They were less likely to report anxiety and poor quality sleep. However, restrictions can make it hard to be socially active, and the elderly and men are at increased risk due to having smaller social networks to begin with.
The Benefits of Social Support
Formal social support programs have been around for decades, with one of the earliest being Alcoholics Anonymous. These are more aptly called peer support programs as they match people together based on specific conditions. Similar programs exist for addictions, mental health issues and chronic diseases. These support groups can provide comfort and improve confidence. It can also reduce the affects of stress, as well as improve healthy behaviours and disease outcomes such as managing blood sugar.
For most of us, our social support networks are far less formal, but no less important. Over the long term, a healthy social life can be great for your quality of life, well-being and longevity. People who are socially isolated are more likely to suffer from chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease. Whereas having a strong social network is associated with a 50% reduction in early death. A reduction similar to the benefits of quitting smoking. There are even indications a robust social network can strengthen parts of the immune system.
In Sardinia (off of Italy), it’s common to see people living well into their 90s. Despite having a laborious life, the men and women of Sardinia have a strong support network where people are always together with others. It is this strong social support that’s believed to have a role in the extended lifespan of many of the inhabitants.
The Biology of Social Support
Humans are a naturally social species. This has evolved as cooperation is a necessity for survival. While we’re not going out on group hunting expeditions like our ancestors did, we still rely on cooperation with others. And there are biological processes that reinforce the need for cooperation.
Being around people gives us opportunity to share our stories and listen to theirs. This can help to alleviate the stress and accompanying physiological responses such as increased cortisol and blood pressure that come with stress. It’s also an opportunity to smile and laugh.
When we feel better we smile, but smiling also makes us feel better. From MRI studies, we know that forced facial expressions actually turn on areas of the brain associated with that emotion. So someone forcing themselves to look mad, can become mad. And someone forcing themselves to smile, can become happy. It doesn’t matter how you felt before.
Laughing has even more potential benefits. Laughter elicits a physiological response that likely results in the release of hormones called endorphins. Some people refer to these as the happy hormones, which reduce pain and make you feel better. In a series of experiments, researchers demonstrated that laughing increases one’s pain threshold. Laughing also results in a cascade of events that leads to better function of the arteries which may be associated with reducing chances for heart disease. And if that isn’t enough to make you smile, laughter therapy has been shown to reduce anxiety in kids (and parents) in hospital and even reduce complications from diabetes.
Tips to Increase Social Support
The key to a strong social support network is not how many people you know, but the quality of those relationships. Having people that care about you, that you trust and enjoy engaging with is the key. The challenge right now is seeing and maintaining those social contacts. Many of us aren’t going to the office or seeing extended family and friends, and restaurants have limits on gathering. But there are still ways to stay connected.
- Pick up the phone or computer: The advancement of technology has opened up how we can connect without being in the same room. Video calls allow us to see each other and can reduce feelings of loneliness and depression. But even hearing a familiar voice can help. Children who talked to their mothers either in person or by phone following a stressor released oxytocin.
- Outdoors is better than indoors- While gathering indoors is restricted, meeting outdoors is okay in most places. And even though it’s getting colder, you can still bundle up, grab a hot drink and go for a walk, snowshoe, ice skate, etc. with a friend.
- The household party- If you’re spending most of your day at home, you may be getting tired of those in your household, however, seeing someone isn’t the same as quality engagement. Set aside some time for game night or a fancy dinner that involves talking and sharing stories.
- Join a support group- Regardless of your needs, background and culture, there’s likely an online support group for you on Facebook or a specific app for your phone.
- Reach out to someone- A lot of people are lonely these days and you can help by reaching out. Whether it’s an old friend, long-lost family member or your neighbour. You can get the benefits of social support and the knowledge (and benefits) of helping someone in need.
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