We all may realize that connecting more regularly with people can improve our social lives and our careers, but social connections also have a fundamental impact upon our very health and wellness. To explain “the connection,” BeWell spoke with Rosan Gomperts, LCSW, director of the Faculty Staff Help Center at Stanford.
Can you summarize the mental, emotional and physical benefits that come from being socially connected?
Many studies show that there are distinct, positive physical and emotional benefits from having supportive social connections. Research suggests that illness rates are lower, as is premature death, for those who are socially connected. What seems eminently clear is that positive, supportive connections help people manage the stress of daily living better than people who do not have the outlet of someone who will listen and empathize with their experience. Most people want to feel heard and understood. Being able to pick up the phone or connect with someone you feel knows you and will be there for you tends to be a very important part of one’s sense of well-being.
Feeling alone or alienated can be scary and isolating and may lead to depression. Of course, people have different needs for interacting: for some, close family is all they need; for others, a large social group is important. But it is clear that some level of social support is important to our physical and mental health and helps us buffer the difficulties that arise in life.
If social connections can help alleviate depression, how does someone suffering from depression best go about expanding their social interactions — especially if they don’t feel up to even going out?
It can be very difficult to cultivate relationships when someone is feeling depressed. Even when depression is not an issue, expanding one’s social connections can be hard. We live in an area where people are very busy and it’s hard to forge new relationships without making some time for them. However, there many things one can try: meet-ups where people can connect over shared hobbies or passions can be a good resource. Joining a group of some sort can be helpful: a book club, knitting club or even a class that interests you where there is interactive discussion. In a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction class, you can learn important skills while connecting with others.
There are also support groups for all kinds of issues. For difficult life events, consider Al Anon or 12-step groups. Grief groups or parenting groups can be especially important sources of support and connection.
Volunteering can also be a good way to get out and connect with others.
For some people, getting out can be really hard — whether due to depression, social anxiety or a lack of time due to pressures in life. However, finding a way to connect is incredibly important, and there are internet options that can be very useful.
What types of social interaction enhance wellness the most? For example, is staying connected on Facebook going to benefit someone as much as joining a group that meets regularly?
I think different options work for different people. There are many people who, for a variety of reasons, do a good deal of very useful and supportive interacting on social media. A prime example is online forums for people who suffer from medical conditions, as such sites enable people to share information and support with each other that might be much harder to find face to face. That said, there is some research indicating that while we are interacting with people through social media or texting, those social ties may not be as strong nor as beneficial to our well-being as face-to-face interactions. What is important is that people think about what they are doing in their lives involving social connections and assess how it’s working. If they find it is lacking, consider making some changes.
Some of our participants mention feeling worse after checking their Facebook feeds and seeing all the wonderful things their friends seem to be doing. Can you explain that phenomenon, and what to do about it?
Facebook and other social media sites seem to be a mixed bag for people with regard to mood. For some, social media sites are a fun way to stay in touch. For others, such sites can “be triggering” (i.e., can bring on a negative change in mood) as they compare their own lives to what they see posted. Looking at the fun things that others are doing when you don’t feel like you are having fun — or as much fun — can stimulate feelings of jealousy or a sense that your life is “not as good.“ At the same time, posting something fun about yourself and getting supportive feedback can stimulate positive feelings. It is important to be mindful about what is working and not working for you around social media — and, of course, that can change from day to day. Noticing if your mood is not great and knowing that you have had the experience of being negatively triggered should hopefully remind you to shut it down. In fact, it seems that many people do take intentional breaks from social media. Other individuals may be overly concerned that if they don’t stay connected, they might miss something important — but I urge people to experiment and pay attention to what works best for them.
Sometimes I’m so overworked that I just want to be alone when I get home. (And isn’t “me time” important for mental health, too?) How can I tell how much time spent alone is healthy or unhealthy?
Very good question and one that takes people knowing themselves. Most people do need a certain amount of downtime to restore themselves, but knowing how much is good and when time alone is too much is very individual. You have to know yourself and recognize if perhaps there has been a change in your normal day-to-day functioning. If you are constantly turning down offers to do something with others because you just feel as if you can’t find the energy it takes to connect, and this pattern persists for some time, it might be a sign that there is something else going on. We all go through times that are very busy and our energy for sharing time with others is lower — and that is fine. Typically, it is very healthy to spend some amount of time alone, but the ratio of “me time” to time spent in connection with others is going to be quite different from one person to another.
If I just don’t feel good when I’m with people, and no better by myself, is it time to seek help?
If you are not feeling good, it is certainly important to reach out. Many people come in to the Faculty Staff Help Center to try to assess, with one of our counselors, what to make of how they are feeling. Clinicians almost always ask about an individual’s social support, and such information is incorporated into the assessment of one’s functioning. If social connections are missing, we try to work with the individual on broadening support.
Talking with a counselor can be a bridge to starting to connect socially as one looks at what is working in his/her life and what is not. The act of sitting and talking with a professional can really help an individual sort out what kinds of things may be helpful in curing what ails them. It is easy to make an appointment with us, and many people come for just a few sessions and find that very helpful. I certainly encourage people who think it might be helpful to talk with someone to give us a call at 650-723-4577 or look us up on our website. We also offer groups for both men and women dealing with the issue of connections. The groups are offered once or twice a year and are discussion groups where people can share their sense of isolation or loneliness or just their desire to have more connections.