Humans are inherently social beings. Having a sense of connection to others is an important element of stress reduction. Studies have shown that the right amount of social support is associated with increases in levels of oxytocin, a hormone which decreases anxiety. Social interaction can decrease loneliness while promoting feelings of safety, security, belonging and enjoyment. Having a sense of community and enjoying shared experiences are key principles of living lagom.
During the UK COVID-19 pandemic lockdown March – June 2020, people spoke to their neighbours for the first time, they offered to shop for each other and neighbours collectively stood on their door steps at 8pm each Thursday to clap for the NHS and other support workers. The lockdown brought many people together (socially distanced of course) but it was a great example of how in time of need, people need people, not things!
However, as the months have gone on, the lack of real social interaction is becoming a strain on many people’s mental health. At the time of writing this (October 2020) the UK is experiencing increased infection rates, many parts of the country are locked down again and there is talk of a second UK wide lockdown meaning people will have less social interaction than they do today. Many people will be feeling a level of social isolation. Interactions for those outside of our households have to be at a distance of 1-2 meters apart – we haven’t hugged, kissed or even shook hands with anyone other than those we live with (or in our support bubbles) for 7 months! It drives home the importance of the social interactions we took for granted pre-covid and now miss dearly.
In a time when social interaction is more important than ever, here are our suggestions for maintaining a social balance, now and in the future:
1. True friends don’t care about the state of your house
How often have you told your children that they can’t have their friends around because you haven’t cleaned up yet? Or how often have you made excuses for not inviting your friends or family around because you can’t face the amount of housework that needs to be done before anyone is allowed in?
Doing just ‘enough’ housework could mean that you can enjoy the company of your friends or family in your home, even if your house is not spotlessly clean – friends don’t care what your house looks like – they care about enjoying a conversation with you. Additionally, your children and their friends don’t even notice whether it is tidy or not, the likelihood is they’ll make more mess anyway! Children just care about having fun and making memories.
So, when we can enjoy each other’s company in our homes, why not invite a friend for a good old chat, coffee and cake and enjoy some fika?
2. Be OK saying no
It is true that the right amount of social interaction reduces stress, but too much social interaction can cause it as much as not enough.
How often do you feel overwhelmed with everything in your social calendar? Between work, children’s activities and trying to maintain a social life for yourself it can sometimes feel like you can’t do it all – you can’t and nor should you! That doesn’t mean that your social life has to be non-existent to accommodate everything else. It does mean however that you don’t have to accept every social invite or attend every social activity for you or your children.
Think quality, rather than quantity when it comes to interpersonal relationships and social interactions. Surrounding yourself with a large number of people that you don’t know very well is less beneficial than having 2 or 3 close confidants when it comes to successfully reducing stress. When it comes to social engagements, pick the ones that you want to attend and politely decline the ones you feel you ‘should’ attend. This applies to your children too – they too can become burnt out with too many social activities on top of school and homework, so aim to seek a lagom approach to social interactions and have ‘just the right amount’.
3. In the absence of face to face, something is better than nothing
Studies, such as that of Alan Teo, M.D., M.S conclude that face to face social interactions are the best type of interaction when it comes to reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression, especially in older people. It requires in-person contact with others to trigger the hormones that alleviate stress and make you feel happier, healthier and more positive. This research is backed up by theories such as Albert Mehrabian’s communication model which concludes that 55% of the impact of our communication come from body language, 38% from the tone of voice, and just 7% from the words themselves. Face to face interaction is important when it comes to building trust and rapport with someone.
However, in the absence of the ability to have in person face to face social interaction, it is still better for our mental health to have some interaction than none. Maintaining relationships with those closest to you is good for your mental wellbeing and can reduce the feeling of loneliness during uncertain times – not only will this help you but could also help them too.
How about trying one of the following:
- Give someone a video call (if you and they are comfortable with the technology) – it is the closest we get to in person communication and allows us to see each other’s faces
- Give someone a telephone call – it is still lovely to hear someone’s voice even if you can’t see their face – especially older friends and family members
- Go old school and write someone a letter – there is still something incredibly special about receiving a letter in the post
- Send an email, text or message – just a quick line to let someone know you are thinking of them will improve your mood as well as theirs
Don’t feel you have to wait for someone to reach out to you first – if you are thinking of someone or just want to chat – reach out and let them know.
4. Manage the social media
Social media can be a great tool for socialising through sharing ideas and messages and receiving feedback on them. Whilst it has it has benefits; it is important to remember that social media isn’t a replacement for real person connection.
Helguide.org points out that ‘Ironically for a technology that’s designed to bring people closer together, spending too much time engaging with social media can actually make you feel more lonely and isolated and exacerbate mental health problems such anxiety and depression’.
A 2018 University of Pennsylvania study found that reducing social media use to 30 minutes a day resulted in a significant reduction in levels of anxiety, depression, loneliness, sleep problems, and fear of missing out (FOMO). The same study also concluded that even if you don’t dramatically reduce your usage levels, just being more mindful of your social media use can have beneficial results on your mood and focus.
Here are some of the things we have put in place to manage social media usage:
- Use a wellbeing app to track and limit daily usage
- Use a focus app which disables social media usage during key times like morning, bedtime or during working time
- Disabled all social media notifications (on screen and via email)
- Removed social media apps from the front screen of the mobile (you could also remove them from your phone completely and only check them through a computer or tablet)
5. Share your hobby with others
Finding a hobby or leisure activity that you can share with others, not only helps you to meet like minded people that share a common interest, but also encourages you to participate in activities that you may not do on your own. Joining a club might be one way to achieve this – clubs often have a collective goal that requires all members to participate to achieve that goal, thus allowing members to enjoy a shared experience.
If joining a club is not for you, think about how you can share your interests, hobbies and passions with others. This may be through joining online communities and discussion groups, or maybe carrying out your hobby or leisure activity in a location where others are doing the same; for example joining a community gym or taking park in a Saturday morning parkrun with members of your local community.
Just knowing that others enjoy the same activities as you can provide you with a sense of community which promotes wellbeing and happiness. By connecting with other people through sharing a common interest we can improve our mood, feel more accepted, share experiences, and support each other.