The winter season may conjure images of cheerful faces and laughter around a crackling fire, but it can also be a time of loneliness for many people. As Psychology Today notes, for people who already struggle with loneliness, “[w]atching everyone around them connect to those they love makes their own feelings of emotional isolation even more profound.” Our social networks are always important, but during the holidays they are essential for personal wellness.
According to an article from The Journal of Health and Social Behavior, our social networks have a huge impact on not only our mental and physical health, but even our mortality risk. Thus, isolation from social networks, particularly during a time of year we often associate with love and family, can be a major threat to our wellness.
This is particularly concerning for those who already struggle with loneliness as a result of their depression. Studies show a strong relationship between loneliness and depression, leading researchers to suggest that depression interventions should in part focus on increasing an individual’s social connections.
But increasing our social ties isn’t always easy. Despite the correlation between social ties and mental health, seeking social support can be challenging for those struggling with depression. Initiating the first steps of communication with others can feel intimidating and even hopeless.
Fortunately, there are several way to build healthy relationships and improve one’s emotional health. Below are a few of our favorite methods.
- Know that your loneliness matters and can be changed
There’s no single cause of loneliness—you may be feeling isolated because of a recent change, like a move to a new town, or because of a longstanding concern like social anxiety. No matter how one’s sense of isolation develops, it can cause a great deal of pain and seem impossible to resolve. Luckily, solutions are available.
You deserve relief from social isolation, and one way to achieve it is through professional assistance. Therapists who’ve specialized in work with relationships, social anxiety, trust, and other related topics can help you develop healthy ways of connecting with others that will increase your quality of life.
Consider a method such as cognitive behavioral therapy, which helps people develop healthier patterns of thinking about and reacting to their interactions with others. If your difficulty making new connections is rooted in past trauma, you might consider seeking a trauma-based treatment like Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). No matter which approach you’d like to take, if you have any questions about loneliness or which type of therapy is right for you, we’d be happy to offer our advice via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Identify and strengthen fulfilling relationships
It can be challenging to reach out to others when we are feeling lonely, but it’s definitely a step worth taking. Guy Winch, a licensed psychologist and published writer on emotional well-being, suggests making a list of 5 people to reach out to when you are lonely. We recommend you include people who make you feel loved and appreciated, whose presence in your life seems secure. While a professional may be working with you to create and improve relationships in the long-term, your list of people can be an emergency support system for when you need a quick boost.
The keys to ensuring that your conversation is relationship-strengthening are fairly simple: sharing and listening. Even on a hormonal level, our bodies respond positively when we open up to others. An article from Psychology Today notes that “sharing [information about ourselves] triggers the release of oxytocin—our bonding hormone, which activates higher levels of trust”.
When conversing with others, share a little about yourself. Loneliness can make us feel like people don’t really know or understand us. Sharing parts of our lives with others helps deepen our connection with them. Be mindful of the other person’s feelings, and identify moments when you can listen to what they’re sharing. Socially savvy people understand the importance of taking turns in a conversation—if someone sees you listening to them, they’ll feel connected to you.
- Cultivate new relationships with social media
Technology has made it easier than ever to reach out to people who we rarely see, creating new opportunities to develop budding friendships. When accesed in healthy doses (10 minutes online versus, say, 3 hours), social media in particular can be used as a tool to connect and keep in touch with others.
Facebook is a great way to find commonalities with friends, even if you haven’t seen them in a while. For example, your newsfeed might show that a Facebook friend is interested in attending a concert near you (possibly one that you’re also interested in attending). Consider commenting on the post or messaging the friend about your shared love of the band. If you feel comfortable, you can even ask them to meet you at the concert.
Facebook isn’t the only social media platform that connects us with others—apps like Instagram, Twitter, Linkedin, and online forums can be useful tools in starting a conversation. Maybe a coworker has been posting about their marathon training; consider starting a convo about long-distance running tips or even inviting them to jog with you. When used the right way, social media can be a powerful catalyst for connecting with others.
This winter season, be mindful of your feelings of loneliness. Seek others who will support you on your journey towards emotional health, and find courage when taking that first step of communication. We all deserve to feel secure in our social attachments, and to feel proud of ourselves for bravely and thoughtfully starting our journeys.
Erin Ross, MS OTR/L is an occupational therapist and an aspiring science writer in DC. She believes in evidence-based practice, clear communication in healthcare, and diligent inclusion of the Oxford comma.