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Developing social support: How to cultivate a network of friends to help you through rough times
Family ties, friendships and involvement in social activities can offer a psychological buffer against stress, anxiety and depression. Social support can also help you cope better with health problems.
Cultivating social support can take some effort. Here's how to develop and maintain strong and healthy social ties.
Social support isn't the same as a support group. Social support is a network of family, friends, colleagues and other acquaintances you can turn to, whether in times of crisis or simply for fun and entertainment. Support groups, on the other hand, are generally more structured meetings or self-help groups, often run by mental health professionals.
Simply talking with a friend over a cup of coffee, visiting with a relative, or attending a church outing is good for your overall health. If you have a mental illness, these connections can help you weather troubled times. Your friends and social contacts may encourage you to change unhealthy lifestyle habits, such as excessive drinking. Or they may urge you to visit your doctor when you feel depressed, which can prevent problems from escalating.
Social support can also increase your sense of belonging, purpose and self-worth, promoting positive mental health. It can help you get through a divorce, a job loss, the death of a loved one or the addition of a child to your family.
And you don't necessarily have to actually lean on family and friends for support to reap the benefits of those connections. Just knowing that they're there for you can help you avoid unhealthy reactions to stressful situations.
Some people benefit from large and diverse social support systems, while others prefer a smaller circle of friends and acquaintances. In either case, it helps to have plenty of friends to turn to. That way, someone is always available when you need them, without putting undue demands on any one person. You don't want to wear out your friends.
If you want to expand your social support network, here are some things you can do:
- Get out with your pet. Seek out a dog park or make conversation with those who stop to talk.
- Work out. Join a class through a local gym, senior center or community fitness facility. Or start a lunchtime walking group at work.
- Do lunch. Invite an acquaintance to join you for breakfast, lunch or dinner.
- Volunteer. Hospitals, places of worship, museums, community centers and other organizations often need volunteers. You can form strong connections when you work with people who share a mutual interest.
- Join a cause. Get together with a group of people working toward a goal you believe in, such as an election or the cleanup of a natural area.
- Join a hobby group. Find a nearby group with similar interests in such things as auto racing, music, gardening, books or crafts.
- Go back to school. Take a college or community education course to meet people with similar interests.
Having a variety of interests can create new opportunities to meet people. And it may also help make you more interesting to others.
Developing and maintaining healthy social ties involves give and take. Sometimes you're the one giving support and other times you're on the receiving end. Recognize who is able to provide you with the most support. Letting family and friends know you love and appreciate them will help ensure that their support remains strong when times are rough.
Your social support system will help you if you take time to nurture friendships and family relationships. Here are some things to keep in mind:
- Go easy. Don't overwhelm friends and family with phone calls or e-mails. Communication can be brief — 5 minutes on the phone or several sentences in an e-mail. Find out how late or early you can call and respect those boundaries. Do have a plan for crisis situations, when you may need to temporarily set aside such restrictions.
- Be aware of how others perceive you. Ask a friend for an honest evaluation of how you come across to others. Take note of any areas for improvement and work on them.
- Don't compete with others. This will turn potential rivals into potential friends.
- Adopt a healthy, realistic self-image. Both vanity and rampant self-criticism can be unattractive to potential friends.
- Resolve to improve yourself. Cultivating your own honesty, generosity and humility will enhance your self-esteem and make you a more compassionate and appealing friend.
- Avoid relentless complaining. Nonstop complaining is tiresome and can be draining on support systems. Talk to your family and friends about how you can change those parts of your life that you're unhappy about.
- Adopt a positive outlook. Try to find the humor in things.
- Listen up. Make a point to remember what's going on in the lives of others. Then relate any interests or experiences you have in common. Sharing details about yourself and your life can also help establish rapport.
Some of the people you routinely interact with may be more demanding or harmful than supportive. Give yourself the flexibility to limit your interaction with those people to protect your own psychological well-being.
For instance, if your social ties consist of people engaged in unhealthy behaviors that you're trying to overcome — such as substance abuse — you may need to sever those connections to help protect yourself and promote your own recovery.
As you seek to expand your social network, be aware of support systems that are unhealthy, oppressive or rigid, or that demand conformity. These can be just as damaging as having no connections at all.
In addition, if people in your social support system are continually stressed or ill, you may suffer along with them. If your friends place heavy demands on your time and resources, or if you're unable to meet their needs, you may find yourself more anxious and depressed.
You also may pay a psychological toll if you feel obligated to the people in your support network — as if you must continually repay them for their efforts — or if you feel you must conform to their beliefs or ideas.
Social support provides a sense of belonging, security and a welcoming forum in which to share your concerns and needs. And you may get just as much out of friendships and social networks where you're the source of comfort and companionship, too.
Relationships change as you age, but it's never too late to build friendships or choose to become involved. The investment in social support will pay off in better health and a brighter outlook for years to come.