Crashmaster007 on Flickr Fight stress: How strong social connections can help you defeat it

Stress can lead to serious health problems. But don’t let it get you down – you can fight it with your friends! Dealing with stress isn’t something you have to do on your own. In fact, many studies have shown that having a strong network of supportive relationships can improve our psychological wellbeing in a variety of ways.

Stress can negatively affect your body, thoughts, feelings and behaviour. Unmanaged, it can lead to serious health problems such as high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity and diabetes. But there’s a growing body of research showing the link between strong social connections and reductions in stress. There is even evidence, as reported by the medical news and advice website WebMD, to show that social connections affect us on a biological level, and that people with social support have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, fewer cardiovascular problems and a better immune function.

How it works

Strong social connections can be critical in helping you talk about – and release – tension caused by a stressful event, be it a bad day at work or grief over the loss of a loved one. It’s not just talking about a problem that can help. The simple act of spending time with people socially can help fend off feelings of loneliness and isolation. When people consider you a friend, this emotional support helps to reinforce the concept that you are a good person to be around, making you feel more positive. Sometimes it’s the back-up of practical advice and concrete help that you might need – with matters such as managing your time for instance. Social connections can give you access to this information and advice.

Who should you turn to?

Some of the social connections that could help you may already exist – but perhaps you’re just not using them yet. Support might come from your spouse or partner, your children, or other family members such as siblings, parents, cousins, aunts or uncles. Sometimes you might want to look outside the family – especially if family is part of the cause of the stress. This is where help from friends, neighbours, co-workers or classmates can kick in. If you’re a member of a religious, cultural or spiritual group, there may be others there who can support you. Perhaps you’re in a book group or attend a regular class where you get together for coffee afterwards. These are all good opportunities for sharing what’s going on in your life with those around you, or using these occasions to relax and switch off from the things in your life that are causing the stress.

Getting connected

If your situation means you don’t have people around you to talk to, there are many activities that can help you develop your social support network. The Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research in the US suggests the following:

  • Volunteer: choosing a cause that is important to you can help you to meet other like-minded people.
  • Join a gym or other kind of exercise group: this will benefit you both mentally and physically.
  • Go back to school or start a new hobby: this will put you in contact with people who share similar interests.
  • Look online: there are many social networking sites these days that help you stay connected with friends and family. There are also sites for people going through specific stressful times, such as a divorce, new baby, or other life changes. Always ensure the site is reputable and be cautious about arranging private meetings with people you don’t know.

A two-way thing

As with any successful relationship, it takes two to make it work. By staying in touch, being a good listener and appreciating friends and family, you will build a strong social network. That in turn will help you stay healthier and live a longer, happier life.

Building a circle of trust

The goal of building a strong social network is to reduce your stress level, not add to it. A study carried out by the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) School of Medicine on older adults found that relationships have the potential for both health-promoting and health-damaging effects. It’s important therefore to avoid people who are a source of stress and drain your energy, such as those who are negative or critical. Seek out relationships that:

  • Are caring
  • Allow you to love and be loved
  • Allow for mutual understanding
  • Validate your self-worth
  • Provide direct help in times of need
  • Celebrate good times
  • Provide security
  • Help you to grow and learn

Some of the most common effects of stress:

On your mood:

  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Restlessness
  • Lack of motivation
  • Anger
  • Sadness or depression

On your behaviour:

  • Over-or under-eating
  • Outbursts of anger
  • Drug or alcohol abuse
  • Tobacco use
  • Social withdrawal

On your body:

  • Headaches
  • Muscle pain and tension
  • Chest pain
  • Sleep problems
  • Tiredness
  • Low libido
  • Stomach problems

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