Stepping Toward Social Connection (and Better Mental Health)
Fulfilling social connections can provide a feeling of belonging and a support system that benefits our mental health, but mental illnesses often cause us to isolate ourselves from others, making the mental illness worse by depriving us of the basic human need for connection. I talked about my experiences with social anxiety in a previous article, "How I Overcame Social Anxiety by Acting As If," and I want to talk a little more today about how, although mental illness and isolation go together, connection is a path toward mental health.
Mental Health Relies on Social Connection, But Mental Illness Loves Isolation
Mental illness thrives in solitude. When we feel disconnected, we're more likely to engage in harmful behaviors in secret. When we isolate ourselves, we might not have anyone around who will notice if we're spiraling downward and need immediate help. Shame develops when we have no one to empathize with us. Social isolation is associated with a higher risk of mental illness and alcohol use disorders.1 When we aren't connected, we're more likely to replace the love we're missing with lesser substitutes.
The problem is that even though mental illness is made worse with social isolation, mental illnesses often cause us to withdraw from others. In my case, my anxiety made social situations so uncomfortable that I actively avoided them. Depression causes low energy as well as low self-worth, which translates to feeling inferior in the company of other people. Those with eating disorders might avoid any social situation that involves food. Other people might feel ashamed of their disorder and avoid people to hide their embarrassment. Every disorder presents its own social challenges.
What Can We Do to Enhance Social Connection?
- Focus on the quality of your relationships rather than the quantity. Likes and followers on social media don't matter. Having a few supportive relationships in your life with people who understand you and care about you is what's important.
- Encourage yourself to reach out to friends and family, even when you think you don't feel like it, even if it's just to send a funny meme or a quick, "Thinking about you! Hope you're having a good day."
- Show interest in others. Ask people questions about themselves and actively listen to the answers. You don't have to talk about yourself.
- Respond to bids for connection. When someone shows you they care and are thinking of you, respond and keep the door open.
- Be open and honest with people. Don't play mind games or use passive aggression to make a point. If you say what you mean and mean what you say, you release yourself from the pressure of spending energy on exhausting miscommunication.
Mental Health Loves Company
Our mental health thrives when we're in the company of supportive others. Making meaningful connections with other people is a big part of who I am, and there was a time in my life when anxiety prevented me from it. Even if relating isn't as central to who you are, belonging is important for our quality of life. Making efforts to intentionally support our social needs can bring us more happiness and meaning while reducing our shame and loneliness. Don't sit back and let your mental illness have the isolation it wants. A step toward connection is a step toward mental health.
- Chou KL, et al., "The Association Between Social Isolation and DSM-IV Mood, Anxiety, and Substance Use Disorders: Wave 2 of the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions." Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, November 2011.
Sabatello, J. (2021, August 30). Stepping Toward Social Connection (and Better Mental Health), HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2021, September 25 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/relationshipsandmentalillness/2021/8/stepping-toward-social-connection-and-better-mental-health
Author: Juliana Sabatello
Mental health loves company - yes it does! So many delightful points here, but I love that you talk about keeping the door open to others. Focusing on the quality of the connections that you have, and responding to those "bids for connection", so well said.
Thank you for reading! I’m glad you found it valuable. I appreciate your feedback!