In the complex tapestry of life, the threads of wellness are woven together by various factors contributing to an individual’s overall health. While the focus is often on nutrition, exercise, and mindfulness as key components of well-being, one thread that is equally significant, yet sometimes overlooked, is the importance of social connections and relationships.
Humans are hardwired for connection and need ongoing relationships to survive. In fact, this fundamental understanding of human development influenced early psychological findings. So, let’s go back to the beginning.
Attachment theory states that early relationships, particularly the parent-child bond, have a significant impact on shaping an individual’s emotional and psychological development. These formative relationships influence the way an individual sees the world, the way they interact with others, and how they view themselves. John Bowlby, a psychologist noted for his research in child development, explained that the way an individual’s caregiver responded, or didn’t respond, to their child’s needs significantly impacted the child’s internal working model.(1) The internal working model consists of several components:
- Expectations about Self: An individual’s beliefs and perceptions about themselves and their ability to trust themselves.
- Expectations about Others: An individual’s beliefs and expectations about others in their lives, and their ability to trust that others will be responsive and reliable.
- Expectations about Relationships: An individual’s understanding of how relationships work. It includes beliefs about what to expect in relationships, such as whether they can rely on others for emotional support or if they should keep their needs hidden.
- Emotional Regulation: An individual’s ability to effectively manage and respond to an emotional experience, adapting to the demands of their environment.(2)
Depending on early childhood experiences, an individual’s perception of self and ability to form and sustain relationships, may be challenging. This isn’t to say that if an individual experiences high levels of distress and trauma as a child, they are doomed. In fact, many of the strategies and patterns of behavior did work for them at some point. It kept them alive and kept them safe. Unfortunately, as these children grow into adults, their internal working model may no longer serve them. This can explain why various mental health problems, unhappiness, dysfunction, anxiety, depression, and relational issues arise.
While the intricate psychological connection between social relationships and mental health is complex, let's explore the profound ways in which social contact can increase resilience and reduce mental health problems.
1. Combatting Loneliness
Loneliness is a pervasive issue, affecting people of all ages and backgrounds. It's more than just a fleeting emotion; it can manifest as a persistent sense of isolation and disconnection. Studies have shown that individuals who experience chronic loneliness are at a higher risk of developing mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety.(3) Social connections serve as a powerful antidote to loneliness, offering a sense of belonging, support, and understanding.
2. Stress Reduction
Life often presents us with challenges and stressors that can take a toll on mental health. Social connections provide a safety net during these challenging times. Having someone to talk to, lean on, or simply share a laugh with can be incredibly therapeutic.(4) Engaging in meaningful conversations and activities with friends and loved ones releases oxytocin, a hormone that promotes feelings of trust and bonding.(5) This hormone, often referred to as the "love hormone," plays a crucial role in stress reduction.
Another way to reduce stress is through meditation. Meditation is widely recognized for its ability to reduce stress and promote overall well-being. It is a relaxation technique that involves focusing the mind on a particular object, thought, or activity, with the goal of achieving mental clarity, emotional calm, and a state of deep relaxation. Luckily meditation doesn’t have to be done alone! Join our team on the SunnyFit® App and listen to various guided audio meditations.
3. Emotional Resilience
While the ups and downs of life are a part of the human experience, maintaining strong social connections can enhance emotional resilience, helping us bounce back from adversity. Resilience is defined as “the ability to develop psychologically normally in difficult life conditions, quickly adapt to difficult situations, and recover from these situations.”(6) Friends and family (external resources) can offer perspective, emotional support, and coping strategies (internal resources), which are invaluable during tough times.
4. Improved Self-Esteem
Social interactions can boost self-esteem and self-worth. When a person feels valued and appreciated by their social circle, it has a positive impact on how they perceive themselves. This, in turn, contributes to improved mental health. Findings suggest that the link between people’s social relationships and their level of self-esteem “is reciprocal in all developmental stages across the life span, reflecting a positive feedback loop between the constructs.”(7)
5. Longer, Happier Lives
Studies have indicated that individuals with robust social connections tend to live longer and enjoy a higher quality of life. In a meta-analysis at Brigham Young University, they found that “social connections with friends, family, neighbors, or colleagues improves the odds of survival by 50%.”(8) The CDC reported that unlike those with high social support, individuals who are isolated increase their risk of dementia by 50%, stroke by 32%, and coronary heart disease by 29%.(9)
The World Health Organization defines positive mental health as "a state of well-being that enables people to realize their potential, cope with daily stress, work productively, and contribute to society."(10) One component of mental health maintenance is maintaining social connections. Whether it's through friendships, family bonds, or community involvement, these connections are integral to human well-being and positively impact mental health.
1. Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and Loss, Vol. 1: Attachment. Attachment and Loss. New York: Basic Books.
2. Rolston, A., & Lloyd-Richardson, E. (2016).What is emotion regulation and how do we do it?
Cornell Research Program.
https://selfinjury.bctr.cornell.edu/perch/resources/what-is-emotion-regulationsinfo-brief.pdf. Accessed 16 October 2023.
3. Mushtaq, R., Shoib, S., Shah, T., & Mushtaq, S. (2014). Relationship between loneliness, psychiatric disorders and physical health? A review on the psychological aspects of loneliness. Journal of clinical and diagnostic research: JCDR, 8(9), WE01–WE4. https://doi.org/10.7860/JCDR/2014/10077.4828. Accessed 16 October 2023.
4. Ozbay, F., Johnson, D. C., Dimoulas, E., Morgan, C. A., Charney, D., & Southwick, S. (2007). Social support and resilience to stress: from neurobiology to clinical practice. Psychiatry (Edgmont (Pa.: Township)), 4(5), 35–40.
5. Algoe, S. B., Kurtz, L. E., & Grewen, K. (2017). Oxytocin and Social Bonds: The Role of Oxytocin in Perceptions of Romantic Partners' Bonding Behavior. Psychological science, 28(12), 1763–1772. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797617716922. Accessed 16 October 2023.
6. Linnenluecke MK. Resilience in business and management research: a review of influential publications and a research agenda. Int J Manag Rev. 2017;19(1):4–30. https://doi.org/10.1111/ijmr.12076. Accessed 16 October 2023.
7. Harris, M. A., & Orth, U. (2019, September 26). The Link Between Self-Esteem and Social
Relationships: A Meta-Analysis of Longitudinal Studies. Journal of Personality and Social
Psychology. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/pspp0000265. Accessed 16 October 2023.
8. Martino, J., Pegg, J., & Frates, E. P. (2015). The Connection Prescription: Using the Power of Social Interactions and the Deep Desire for Connectedness to Empower Health and Wellness. American journal of lifestyle medicine, 11(6), 466–475. https://doi.org/10.1177/1559827615608788. Accessed 16 October 2023.
9. National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. (2023). The Power of Connection: How It Can Improve Our Health. National Center for Chronic Disease Control and Prevention.https://www.cdc.gov/emotional-wellbeing/features/power-of-connection.htm. Accessed 16 October 2023.
10. World Health Organization. Promoting mental health: concepts, emerging evidence, practice (Summary Report). Geneva (2004).