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The Power of Positive Social Connection

When facing increased levels of stress or emotion, it is instinctively human to reach out to others for support and use social connections to reduce stress and improve our overall mood and wellbeing. There is an ongoing concern that the restrictions of the pandemic are contributing to social isolation and loneliness, particularly with vulnerable or already disconnected groups of individuals.

The Impact of the Pandemic on Social Connection

Originally coined “social distancing”, the restrictions put in place to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus carried with it some physical and mental health risks if taken to mean you should reduce or eliminate your social contacts. The intention behind the restriction was not to encourage social distance or isolation, but rather to increase the physical distance between yourself and others when engaging socially. Although the impacts of physical distancing do likely reduce your social connectivity, it is important to try to still maintain a sense of connectedness which help you to be resilient during challenging times. These connections are critical to surviving and thriving in times of stress and adversity.

The Link Between Social Connection and Well-being

Social connection provides several positive benefits which contribute to an overall sense of health and well-being. It is a protective factor against mental health challenges or capacity decline. As humans, we are hard-wired to seek connection and have a need for a sense of belonging to others and our community. This sense of belonging leads to feelings of joy and happiness and is one of the top 3 most significant social determinants of health. This means that your sense of connectedness has a direct impact on your physical and mental health. Individuals who feel disconnected are more likely to experience symptoms of anxiety, depression, suicidality, and self-esteem issues. These experiences are often associated with moods and behaviours which could further increase isolation such as irritation, anger, cynicism, chronic fatigue, and other symptoms which make it more likely that an individual will further withdraw or been seen negatively and avoided by others.

Social connection provides a number of important functions for humans which contribute to a sense of purpose, positive well-being, and continued growth and resilience. Engaging in discussion with your co-worker, family member, or friend provides intellectual stimulation and helps to expand your knowledge and build skills to improve coping, as well as help you to better manage your day-to-day needs. Additionally, your connections act as a sounding board for sharing feelings, experiences, and perspectives that might be hurting you. Relationships provide insights and opportunity for you to better understand yourself, others, and the world in new ways. Engaging in conversation gives others the opportunity to demonstrate empathy and understanding toward you, challenge your inaccurate thinking, point out problematic behaviour, and assist you to solve problems. It is also through our social contacts that we are able to express and receive affirmations, appreciation, and gratitude, and participate in humour and laughter, all of which can brighten our mood, reduce stress, combat worries and anxiety, reduce loneliness and depression, and as a result, we experience improved overall well-being. Social connection is critical to an individual’s resilience and their ability to bounce back from hard times.

Are all social connections created equal?

Social connection can come from a variety of personal and professional relationships and contacts. These might include your family and friends, co-workers, and professional colleagues, as well as members of social, religious, or support groups. Your physical and mental health care providers are also part of your social connections, including a doctor or nurse, a crisis counsellor or other health or mental health professional. Further, social connection can be achieved in non-human relationships through emotional and social connection to pets and animals as well.

Positive social connection can come from any individual that is willing to listen, provide support and encouragement, advice if requested and works to understand your challenges and where you are coming from. The critical factors to a positive and supportive relationship include trustworthiness, non-judgemental attitude, genuineness, and unconditional caring and positive regard for one another. This type of support is more commonly found in close friends and family, but it can also be found in unfamiliar or novel relationships as a result of openness, humility, and vulnerability with someone you might least expect. Challenges and adversity have a way of bringing individuals or groups together through mutual understanding and a common struggle that can build connection in the general community as well.

Learning to Connect in the Pandemic World

With physical distancing restrictions still in place across the country, it has become more challenging to engage in genuine, meaningful, social connection. For individuals that are savvy with technology or those already living apart from family and friends, the transition to virtual social connection may have been seamless or second nature. For other more vulnerable groups with limited access to technology, individuals with reduced capacity or understanding of technology, the transition to virtual social connection may be more of a struggle.

While video platforms such as Skype or Zoom better simulate a face-to-face connection, more traditional means of communication such as phone calls, texting, and letter writing can still contribute to an increased sense of connectedness as well. For many individuals, personal and professional social media platforms have also been used for positive social engagement, sharing of resources and support, and messages of encouragement, even with individuals we do not know.

As organizations and businesses adapt to the new virtual means of connecting, there are a number of unique ways that individuals can increase their social connectedness even if it is with strangers. Activities such as virtual social clubs, virtual fitness challenges and yoga classes, virtual meditation and mindfulness sessions, online gaming, or even online cooking classes and demonstrations. Some musicians and artists have also moved toward live music and guided art classes which have the opportunity for chatting and social connection as well.

If you still feel like you are struggling or feeling lonely, here are a few tips for reducing the feeling of social isolation:

  • Schedule in social connection with friends and family to ensure commitment, availability, and reduce the likelihood of failed contacts

  • Replace previous in-person social activities, such as going to the gym, with similar or new virtual activities to maintain your ongoing contact with familiar faces or new individuals as well

  • Use social media platforms as a means for social connection rather than a platform for comparing yourself to the lives and experiences of others. This act of comparing lives on social media can actually worsen feelings of loneliness and further disconnect individuals from one another.

  • Use social connection in a way that is helpful for you rather than always allowing others to meet their needs first. This might mean connecting to talk about feelings, to achieve distraction, or simply to have a good laugh. Being open with others about your needs can help you to feel support from your relationships.

  • Plan to celebrate holidays and events virtually, whether it be a birthday, baby shower, anniversary, or celebration of life. Find unique ways to play virtual games, share a virtual meal, or share memories with one another.

  • Go outside and be in the presence of other people, even if you don’t know them. Being in a public space with strangers can still elicit feelings of belonging to the community.

  • Take the opportunity to say hello or wave to others, or simply acknowledge others with a quick smile. Many individuals will return the greeting, boosting your mood, and it may be enough to brighten their day as well.

  • Appreciate your alone time too. Reframe time alone as an opportunity for self-care or to treat yourself. Choose to look forward to your time alone rather than feeling trapped or isolated.

When to Seek or Encourage Professional Help

Although having an overall sense of personal connectedness can improve mental health, coping, and resiliency, sometimes informal social supports are not enough. Although the support you receive from family and friends might improve your mood and lift your spirits, this feeling can be short-lived if more serious problems, such as negative thinking patterns or behaviours, are underlying your experience. In these instances, the support of and connection to a medical professional or therapist may be needed to address the root cause of your mood, thinking, and emotions.

Here are some symptoms or behaviours to be mindful of, in yourself and in others, that may indicate the need for more professional counselling or support. It is important to recognize that everyone is coming from a different starting point, so the specific symptoms or behaviour changes experienced will be unique to each individual.

  • Ongoing changes in sleep, eating, and exercise patterns

  • Increase in muscle tension, headaches, nausea, and fatigue

  • More frequently feeling sick or unwell, recurring colds, or the onset of other more serious health concerns

  • Withdrawal from social connection, hobbies, and other pleasurable activities that are not directly impacted by the pandemic and physical distancing restrictions

  • Decreased productivity, missing deadlines, making mistakes, and reduced functioning at work, as well as frequently showing up late or missing work altogether

  • Forgetfulness, inability to concentrate, and difficulty making decisions

  • Decrease in self-care, hygiene, and inability to complete chores or everyday tasks

  • Increase in mood swings, negativity, apathy, irritability, and outbursts, especially if they are being recognized by others

  • Increase in anxiety symptoms such as uncontrollable worry or irrational fears

  • Increase in depressive symptoms such as hopelessness, worthlessness, or thoughts to harm oneself or others

  • Irregular use or termination of psychiatric medications without consulting your care team

  • Increase in substance use or other addiction and risky behaviours such as gambling, reckless driving, or other illegal activities

Contact your Employee and Family Assistance Program for Support

If you, or someone you know, are experiencing persistent or worsening mental health or emotional struggles as a result of COVID-19, or for any other reason, reach out to your EFAP program for support. You can call to access support for yourself or to help guide you as you support a colleague or friend. A professional can help you to process emotions, recognize unhelpful thinking or behaviours patterns, and begin the journey toward healing for yourself or for others. We are here to help 24/7 with access to telephonic, online, and video-based supports to assist you during the pandemic.

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