I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts on my way to work yesterday (big shout out to Glennon Doyle and "We Can Do Hard Things" episode 179 if you're curious) and the topic was loneliness, connection and the power of friendships and social connection. The more I listened, the more it just made sense to talk about this topic right now. With all we've walked through over the past few years and all that has been going on in the world since then, connection, healing and caring for our bodies, minds, souls and spirits is a top priority.
I think it’s fair to say that the isolation that we were forced into over the past couple of years of the pandemic deeply impacted all of us inside and out. While it was an important part of keeping each other safe in the beginning days of the pandemic, loneliness, and lack of social connection increased rates of depression, anxiety, suicide, and addiction, to name a few. We watched rates of chronic disease soar as well, not just from how we were or weren’t caring for ourselves physically, but because our mental, spiritual, emotional, and social health was also suffering.
We know that socially isolated patients have poorer clinical outcomes, increased rates of hospitalization, and higher medical costs. Social isolation increases our risk for coronary artery disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and makes us more susceptible to illness. And once again, this comes down to the resources we all have access to or lack thereof. Those with inadequate social resources and support are most at risk and there are many factors that contribute to this.
What research has shown and what we have known for some time is that having strong social connections is the single most important predictor of human happiness and longevity. We know that when we have strong positive social connections, our blood pressure and heart rate improve. We tend to be more hopeful, less anxious, overwhelmed and stressed. Our overall health improves when we are positively connected to other people.
How can we connect with others? Well, there are lots of ways. It's important we all evaluate our personal risk and comfort level as we consider what social connections we can or want to participate in. After all, we are still in the midst of cold and flu season and COVID is still among us and a real risk for some of us. Finding balance is key, here.
Perhaps the thing that fills you up the most is having dinner or going for a walk with a good friend or family member.
Maybe you could consider volunteering at a school, nursing home, local food shelf, homeless shelter or other facility in your community. Connect with a community resource center to figure out what options you have.
Connect with an online community with those who share your same interests. Even better if they are local, making those in person meet ups easier.
Join a religious or spiritual group.
Connect with a local animal shelter or adopt a pet to connect with others who love animals just like you do.
Attend an event, such as a concert, sporting event or local art show.
Enroll in and take a course at your local library or a community college.
Once you've thought about how you're going to make social connections safely (that's the getting Specific part), the next step is to identify how you can make it Measurable...as in, how much time and/or how many sessions will you commit to? Is this social connection goal Attainable and are you capable of following through on it? Is it Realistic, meaning is this something you can actually do? Lastly, how much Time is connected to this activity? How frequent will you participate in it and/or how long will you commit for? We call this SMART Goal setting.
My message this week really is twofold. First and foremost, I want to encourage you to think about what social connections fill you up and make you feel good. Are you participating in enough of these, or is more of your time spent engaging in activities that make you feel the opposite? Many of us have multiple things going on in our lives, between work, family, kids, caring for aging parents etc. And while these are important things to engage in, sometimes they are exhausting and draining. Sometimes they take more energy from us than they give back. And if we aren’t careful with how we balance it, our mental and physical health will suffer. Remember that self-care is all of the things we are or aren’t doing to give back and take care of our own well-being. So, this week, think about what social connection activity you have time and can participate in.
If you're a healthcare provider, this next one is for you. I don’t think we talk about this topic of social connection with our patients enough. We stress the importance of exercise, eating well, lowering our stress and how to manage and/or decrease our risks for chronic disease. I don’t think we talk much about social connection and the impact it has on our overall health. I don’t think we ask questions of our extremely busy patients, inquiring about if the things keeping them busy are enjoyable and positive social connections, or draining them instead. So, I’d encourage you to start talking more about it and encouraging our patients to safely engage in social connections and experiences that positively impact them.
Remember, when we are well connected with ourselves, we are better able to connect with others. And I genuinely believe that connection is the path towards healing.