As humans, we are wired for social connection. We are built to give and receive support. But having a social network is not just a way for us to blow off some steam and have a few laughs. Social support can improve our sense of security, belonging and safety. It can improve mental health. And it can reduce physical and mental stress. Plain and simple, social support is good for our health.
As I’ve studied stress and the stress response over the years, I’ve become somewhat obsessed (in a healthy way, of course!) with the work of a ‘Stress Expert’ named Robert Sapolsky. A Harvard-trained Neuroendocrinologist, Stanford professor (in Biology, Neurology and Neurosciences), author and researcher, Sapolsky spent decades researching how other primates (baboons) respond to stress and social hierarchies. A portion of his research reveals that a lack of social support is not just a significant underlying source of stress for people, but perhaps the leading cause of depression. He is the main reason why I include lack of social support as one of The Top 10 Unhealthy Habits in my programs – because a lack of social support can negatively impact your health.
How does a lack of connection cause stress?
One of the main reasons a lack of social support can cause stress is because without it, you’re missing an outlet for your frustrations. This doesn’t mean your friends and family and colleagues only exist for your venting pleasure, but when you are under mental or emotional stress, it helps to have someone trustworthy that can support you, provide perspective, and remind you that you’re not alone as you navigate whatever is stressing you out.
Now, that’s not to say that everyone needs a shoulder to cry on. As Sapolsky states in his book, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, “just because someone is socially isolated doesn’t mean they are stressed by it – there are lots of hermits who would be happy to pass on yet another crowded party.”
However, as Sapolsky continues, “In many of the studies, the subjects who fit the bill as socially isolated rate themselves as lonely, certainly a negative emotion.”
And negative emotion can have a physical impact on our bodies. Yes, what you think can affect your physical health. When your body is under stress, it activates The Stress Response. When that stress is chronic (ie/when you’re feeling lonely on a regular basis), the ongoing adjustments with your nervous system and hormones can result in imbalance and disease. When it comes to social support, your body is no different.
Other studies have shown that individuals who lack social support are at greater risk of mortality when faced with serious health concerns like cardiovascular disorders, breast cancer and infectious diseases. People who are performing a stressful task on their own (or with a stranger present), have been shown to have an elevated blood pressure. Yet, people who perform a stressful task on their own, but have a friend present, are shown to have reduced blood pressure.
Now just because your personal social network (family, friends, colleagues) has the potential to neutralize the effects of stress doesn’t mean that they actually will. This is where it comes down to quality versus quantity.
It’s important to recognize that some relationships are healthier than others (and in more ways than one).
In the book Healthy at 100, author John Robbins reveals various areas of the world that have the highest number of centenarians (those who live until 100+) and supercentenarians (those who live until 110+). Social support is one of the most common denominators that experts believe plays a role in their ongoing health.
However, as the book reveals, when it comes to social support, it’s not the number of social relationships that determines whether people feel lonely. Instead, it’s about how good of friends they are, how connected and supported you feel. Healthy relationships are highly cooperative and feature good 2-way communication, trust, respect, and honesty. Unhealthy relationships are often deficient in one or more of these areas. Most of us have a strong instinct for which relationships are better for us to be in than others. Spending more time with those individuals that you share a quality relationship with will likely have a more positive impact when it comes to reducing stress for both yourself and your friends. If there is distrust, emotional conflict, or a lack of support…this is when an individual feels loneliness.
So when you’re choosing your immensely valuable social support network that can potentially make or break your physical health, pay attention to quality over quantity. Choose positive people you can trust, who are supportive, who you feel connected to, who energize you, who help you realize you’re not alone, and who, without asking for anything in return, help you reduce stress.
You may find the act of socializing superfluous; yet, this act of connecting with others can provide you with the wellness benefits and balance that your body needs.
Here’s the test. Deliberately spend 30 minutes socializing everyday – (social media doesn’t count). Carve out a total of 3.5 hours per week to connect with others, ensuring you stay within whatever safe boundaries are required:
Secondly, the idea is to get you off your screen for this allotted time. Turn off notifications to eliminate the urge to check or respond to a notification mid-conversation – because let’s face it, checking your phone while you’re talking to someone – whether in person or on Zoom – weakens your ability to have meaningful, focused conversations and it can also weaken their trust that you’re invested in their happiness. So ditch the phone while you’re out and really pay attention to how you feel during and after your social outing!
Whether you’re naturally social or not, pay attention to how you feel after some quality time with your people. And just like with any recipe for success, adjust the ingredients as needed.
👩🏫 IsHidden Stress keeping you from reaching your health and wellness goals? Take the What’s Your Hidden Stress Score Quiz to find out!