I haven’t written much about the importance of relationships during stressful times. But, I am hearing more and more of home environments in which interpersonal tension (and frustration) is beginning to reach dangerous levels.
So it seems that now is a good time to give attention to how we can strengthen our relationships to help ensure that emotional support is available when we most need it (which, for many of us, is right now).
First of all, and perhaps somewhat surprisingly, research shows that the quality of your relationships has an influence on every aspect of your health and that people with strong social connections have better health and longer lives.
From your relationship with yourself to your children, friends, and romantic partners, each of these holds significance for your short- and long-term health outcomes, starting in childhood and having a cumulative effect throughout life.
Our connections to others are integral in how we are able to manage life, deal with stress and find a feeling of belonging. Yet, most of us stumble when it comes to overcoming challenges with those we love, and these relationship difficulties are often highlighted during periods of chronic stress such as is currently the case for almost all of us.
So, how can your relationship with someone affect your physical and mental health?
Firstly, our social connections influence our actions and, often, how we feel about ourselves. Socialising with someone who eats really well can inspire you to do the same while socialising with someone who always criticises and/or complains is very likely to have a negative impact on your sense of self.
Our social ties also impact our health on a cellular level. Studies have found social connections can influence the way our immune system responds to challenges, as well as our inflammatory pathways which, we now know, have a significant impact on our brain functioning and mental health.
Friend power definitely appears to be more impactful than willpower. Strengthening your friendships and having a supportive community provides numerous health benefits, as indicated above.
Studies show that the ability to feel connected to others is neurobiological. Our brains are also wired in a way that causes us all to want connection and be part of a group (e.g. a family or “tribe”). So embrace that instinct by continually working on your relationships with friends that elevate you, the people who make you your best self.
Importantly, research also shows that the best way to connect with others at a meaningful level is through talking about, or exposing, those aspects of yourself that make you feel awkward, uncomfortable and/or ashamed. This is what vulnerability is all about.
During stressful times like these, when you might be feeling that you are not coping with life, or are failing to deal with what life has thrown you, it is very easy to feel some level of shame.
And it can be difficult, if not impossible, to admit any of this to those in your social network. In other words, it can be very difficult to allow ourselves to be vulnerable with, and accept love and support freely from, those we know well (and those we know less well).
Still, in order for you to feel connected to another person, you have to allow your self-perceived weaknesses to be seen and/or known. You have to be vulnerable.
And yet many of us numb, avoid, or disconnect from, vulnerability. However, you cannot selectively numb or avoid difficult feelings such as vulnerability, disappointment, grief, fear or shame without numbing the other emotions.
So when we numb those, we numb joy, gratitude, and happiness. And then we feel miserable, and we look for purpose and meaning. And then we feel vulnerable, so we have a couple of beers (if we can get hold of them) and/or a whole bar of chocolate.
The other way to live your life, especially during these difficult and uncertain times, is, as the vulnerability expert Brene Brown says, to let yourself be seen, deeply seen, vulnerably seen; to practice gratitude and joy in those moments of fear and uncertainty. Just to be able to stop and, instead of catastrophising what might happen, to say, "I'm just so grateful because to feel this vulnerable means I'm alive."
And, we need to believe that we are enough. Because when we work from a place that says, "I'm enough," then we are kinder and gentler to ourselves, and we are kinder and gentler to the people around us. And our relationships become stronger and we feel more supported, and we are able to cope better with the curve balls that life throws us.
Prior to the lockdown, I decided to give time and energy to creating a range of courses that would help individuals achieve excellent mental health, a sharp and vibrant mind, and a brain that functions optimally. The competition that is mentioned in the title of this newsletter requires you to put your thinking cap on and come up with a catchy name for my new psychology-related training “school” / services. The best name wins its creator free access to my online courses, including my 8-week “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction” course and/or my 3-week “Dealing with Depression without Drugs” course.
And keep an eye open for my next newsletter delivered to your inbox next week.
With warm regards,
Alistair Mork-Chadwick (Psychologist)