Just another Friday night?
The clock showed 7.30pm as we sat at the table in the riverside pub, 3 friends choosing from the menu and chatting about our last-minute decision to grab a bite to eat while we were out. The quiet background hum of voices from other customers felt comfortable. I relaxed into my seat and watched my friends laughing at some silly joke.
And suddenly it struck me.
The forgotten normality of this scene on a Friday night; the result of an out of the blue invitation that morning leading to each of us rushing about all day to ensure we could all make the event.
Over the last two years we’ve all become so used to experiencing all the restrictions placed on our social activity; the need to accept those restrictions and the length of time it’s taken to reach this point in the pandemic contributing to make staying in and away from others feel almost normal.
But on this particular Friday, the contrast between all the careful considerations and planning that had gone in to just seeing people and the freedom of just doing it felt profoundly GOOD.
Obviously, we understand we still need to be cautious but the signs are out there that it’s time to at least start thinking about how to rejoin the world in a way that’s healthy.
And of course, we all know the things we’re supposed to do to stay healthy - eat more veg and fruit, get out into fresh air, exercise regularly and have good quality sleep.
But how many of us have taken into account the physical and mental benefits of regular social connection?
We’ve done what we can to weather the pandemic but almost without realizing it, many of us have changed our behaviours and outlook; some have even developed a subtle mistrust of others and are reluctant to get back out in the world.
Where’s the harm in staying in?
A lack of social connection has been called “the new smoking.” Not only does it make us feel lonely and isolated, but it also increases the risk for a number of physical and mental health problems. A 2017 study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that people who had less than one hour of social connection per day were up to 33% more likely to die prematurely. And the 2016 British inflammation study found that lack of social connection may be as draining on our immune systems as physical activity or smoking cigarettes.
It's now thought that social isolation in parents can even lead to more antisocial behaviour in the community further down the line, when children grow up without necessary social skills to interact with others
However, the real danger for some may not be the health implications as we return to going out and socialising, but simply the fear of putting ourselves out there again.
Quite apart from the fear of catching Covid, for some there’s also going to be the fear of feeling vulnerable, of being criticised or the fear of not measuring up because social skills have become a bit rusty.
And who wants to live in fear?
Do we have really want to lead a more isolated existence?
But the question you may be asking is if we even have the same opportunities we once had?
It got me thinking.
There’s no doubt that the world has changed as a result of the pandemic, but is it going to reduce or expand the opportunities we have to interact in more meaningful ways?
What is a “healthy social connection”?
A “healthy social connection” is one that is mutually supportive, emotional, and satisfying.
Meeting up in person with close friends and family is the obvious way to have this healthy social connection but this is not always possible when someone has a limited social network or feels isolated by physical location or time constraints.
Anonymous and superficial relationships with people, often occurring online through a chat app or social media platform can be fun but may not always meet all of our needs.
The way to make these online connections work and to reap the benefits is to find ways of making them more meaningful. Rather than just scrolling or randomly engaging, find a group or membership where you can share interests, ideals and values.
These are a good starting point and now with the options of zoom, windows teams or facebook rooms there is no geographical limit to making new connections and friends. Online groups and memberships that interest us and that have a firm grasp on online etiquette are definitely worth exploring.
In my work, I offer online group events and also take part in groups like this because they fit in around my schedule and I know I have a starting point of shared interests with other participants. For me, there’s nothing like being guided through a visualisation or meditation to feel connected with others in the group, and to help me stay balanced and enjoy a reset!
If local in person options are available then there are many ways we can increase our social connections, such as joining a club or organisation - whether it's a book club, running club, or a meet up group, there are plenty of opportunities out there to meet new people.
Volunteering is another option that’s not only good for the community but also good for you – giving to something, whether online or in person will not only improve your health but whenever there’s a shared sense of purpose you feel better.
It’s often possible to find ways to get more involved in the community even if you feel like you don't have time to regularly volunteer or join a new organisation. There are always community groups who welcome an extra pair of hands even on a one-off basis and gives more opportunities to make friends with other people in the area and build relationships that last.
The bottom line
Now, more than ever, I think it’s important to start rebuilding meaningful social connections and put ourselves back out there.
Even if you feel like a square peg in a round hole there will be something you can get involved in to engage with others. If it all seems a step too far to meet people in person yet, explore online options.
Don’t wait for someone to come and find you, be brave and put yourself out there to make it happen, even if you’re more comfortable to build new friendships online. You deserve to enjoy the health benefits of social connection.
What’s starting up again locally, what options are open to us to meet like-minded souls if we live far apart?
Friends are the best medicine, both old and new. I’m certainly not going to take mine for granted any more.
Remember, feelings of loneliness are both psychologically and physiologically harmful.
We may not be able to control our circumstances, but we can take control of how we react to them. And we can build and nurture healthy social connections wherever we are.
I hope these ramblings have given you some tips on how to do just that... and if you have already figured all of this out then I’m so happy you’ve got your health in hand…
Not everyone has though, so if you know someone who may find any bit of this useful then please do share it with them.
My website is www.mindovermatterscotland.co.uk
My facebook page is www.facebook.com/mindovermatterscotland
My private facebook group is The Thrive Hub and I offer free monthly live events via Zoom
You can join the Thrive Hub here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/429687222168915/