Studies show that 25% of Americans report having no meaningful social support or person that they could confide in when emotionally or intellectually in need of support. Further, over half of all Americans report having no close confidants or friends outside their family. Meaningful social connections are an inherent human need and in its absence, loneliness can occur.
Loneliness as a result of social isolation has been shown to have significant negative consequences for physical and emotional health. In fact, it has been described as the social equivalent of chronic physical pain.
Social isolation can occur when objective resources or opportunities for connection are limited or it can result from a subjective feeling of not belonging or inadequate in some perceived way. This can occur at all age, but seniors are particularly at risk.
Being alone or socially isolated can not only result in feelings of sadness and distress, but it can also be harmful to overall well-being. Over the past 20 years there has been a consistent stream of research supporting the finding that social isolation is dangerous to your health.
Many studies have shown that having strong support from family and friends can help to keep your blood pressure down and your heart functioning well. Specifically, it was found that when subjects were performing a stressful act or undergoing a painful procedure, they were able to keep their heart rate lower when they were accompanied by a friend or family member compared to a stranger.
Research has also shown that you are more likely to die after a heart attack if you live alone. It is clear that having somebody help support you after an illness with physical care (e.g., helping with meals, providing medications and assisting with other needs) is important but it is equally important to have somebody to confide in about your feelings. In one study, thirteen hundred patients were followed after a heart attack, only 50 percent of those who lived alone and were without a confidant were alive after five years as compared to 82 percent who lived with a friend or spouse.
Social support can be defined in tangible and measurable ways such as the number of friends or personal relationship you have. It can also be described in more subjective ways, such as the feeling of being connected to others. However social support is defined, there is substantial evidence that it has direct effects on psychological and physical well-being as well as indirect stress buffering effects.
TECHNIQUES TO IMPROVE SOCIAL SUPPORT
1. Simply being shy and busy is no reason to be isolated and lonely. Social networking has a tendency to conjure up the image of “working a room” and making small talk or aggressively “selling” yourself to strangers. This does not have to be the case. Networks come in all shapes and sizes. We can have close friends and large groups of social networking groups that we interface with through multiple media channels. We can have large groups of friends and a handful of social and professional contacts. One size does not fit all.
2. Recognize what type of support is missing in your life. There are some people who are not comfortable with genuinely sharing feelings with others or openly discussing concerns in a group setting. However, support comes in all shapes and sizes. Emotional support will provide you with a confidant for support in emotional decisions or an outlet to vent concerns. On the other hand, instrumental support refers to assistance with tasks or tangible support with financial, medical or service needs.
3. Identify individuals and groups who share similar interests as you. If you have a group of individuals who enjoy the same intellectual, social and physical activities, it can help to keep you engaged and motivated to pursue your interests. When a group of fellow readers, yoga enthusiasts or painters support and encourage you to participate you are more likely to keep balance in your life by not neglecting these interests.
4. It is also important to expose yourself to diverse groups as well. We need to consistently challenge ourselves to be exposed to differing opinions, experiences and knowledge bases to allow us to stay balanced and grow. When the only opinions and ideas that we are open to are our own or those who share our opinions then we lose the opportunity to grow and achieve greater success.
5. Learn the fine art of assertiveness without becoming aggressive. People who at in an aggressive style demand and expect others to do exactly what they want. Those who act in a submissive style give up their own beliefs, opinions and wants for those of others. They feel guilty asking for what they want, as if others’ needs were more important than their own. Assertive people respect others views and feelings but also values and respect their own.
6. Time. In most of our daily routines we lack enough time to get the things accomplished that we need to do without the “burden” of reaching out to friends or family. However, it is the very nurturing of these relationships that may in fact be our best use of our time. Science consistently shows us that these relationships are the fuel for our creativity, our success and our physical and emotional well-being. Therefore, we need to see them as important elements on the to-do- list.
7. Be specific when asking for support. In times of crisis or distress, we often expect others to intuitively know what we need. It is important to ask specifically for what you need. Otherwise, you are destined to be disappointed when your real needs are not met. At times we need somebody to simply listen and offer emotional support, other times we may be looking for advice or guidance and still other times we may need tangible support in helping to accomplish a task. Know what you need and then ask for it.
8. Stay connected. It is critical for your health and your success.