We often worry about the physical factors that affect our health, but sometimes forget about the role of emotional or psychological factors. Social connections, friendships and our relationships with other people help shape who we are and how we behave, but they also impact on our health.Research shows that loneliness and social isolation are associated with a worse prognosis in patients with heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, liver disease, breast cancer and stroke. Also, people who are divorced, widowed or single are often found to be more depressed than those who are in supportive relationships.
Apart from the effects of your own mood, the emotions of the people around you can also impact on your health and well-being. For example, if your partner is depressed for a long period of time, you are more likely to develop depression too. There is also something called the 'cluster effect', where our mood is influenced by the mood of our social network (e.g. if all our friends are happy, we are more likely to be happy too).
There are a number of theories about how exactly our emotions and social connections (or lack of social connections) affect our health however at this stage, more research is needed. Whether social support networks provide us with the ability to cope and adapt or whether they offer protection from chronic disease and illness, a lack of social support does appear to be damaging to our health.
Tips for maintaining social connections
- Join a group or club for like-minded people in your local area. This includes sports clubs, hobby groups (e.g. book clubs, knitting groups), and special interest groups such as patient or carer support groups. If you can't find a group that suits you, you may like to think about starting one yourself – there may be other people in the same situation as you.
- You may feel uncomfortable at first but this may be a time to push yourself outside of your comfort zone. Not everyone finds it easy to make new friends but the benefits of connecting with others can far outweigh the initial discomfort.
- If you are physically isolated, either due to poor health or distance, consider using the internet to connect with new and existing friends. If you are not confident with your computer skills, contact your local council as many offer short courses on how to use the internet.
- If you can't think of a club or hobby you would like to follow think about volunteering. Volunteering will get you out there connecting with others and feeling like you are a making a difference in other people's lives.
- If you find yourself in a social network that is causing you distress or you find yourself thinking more negatively around some people then it may be time to think about connecting with people who are more positive and who share the same values as you.
For more information about emotional health and wellbeing, go to www.healthforwomen.org.au/emotional-wellbeing.