The power of connecting.

How relationships can improve our wellbeing.

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As anyone will tell you, being active, and physically fit, are important components of a healthy life style. But what we are only just waking up to in society is that it’s just as important to work on your mental health.

In part 4 of my blogs on taking care of your mental health, I look at the importance of reaching out to others.

I’m sure you’re aware that having relationships is a good thing.

But were you aware that relationships, from friendships to life partners, can actually make you live longer?

A recent review of 148 studies found that people with strong social relationships are 50 per cent less likely to die prematurely – that’s halving your chances of dying early.

What all the research points to is that having good, nourishing relationships, improves not just your physical health, but also makes you happier, more fulfilled and more emotionally resilient.

Why is this?

I believe that the number one reason for this is that humans are relational creatures. It’s an incredible thought but as babies we require love and affection to actually build the circuitry of the front part of our brains. Love literally wires us for love.

This ability to empathise, and relate, that we grow as babies, then sets us up as social creatures who are hard-wired to connect with each other. That’s why we can find such comfort, joy and delight in other people’s company.

And why loneliness can be a catalyst for mental illness.

It seems that everyday now when I open the newspaper there is some new statistic on how many people in our modern society feel lonely. And I see it in my client base, the fact that busy careers, and the rise of social media, can leave people feeling very cut off from others in their lives.

We seem to spend so much time connecting virtually, and seem to have so little time left for connecting over a coffee, or over a shared convivial meal.

So what’s going on? Why is it so hard to connect, see friends and meet people?

While there’s no single reason as to why it may be getting harder to nurture friendships and start new relationships in modern life, I think that part of the reason may be logistical: we are trying to cram more and more activities into each 24 hours. From gym sessions, to round-the-clock careers, to looking after small children, to catching up on the latest box set, each of these eats into time for hanging out with friends and partners.

I think this has a potentially detrimental effect on our mental health: because friendship – and close relationships of all hues – can give us so much. They give us the opportunity to be emotionally vulnerable, and opening up our true selves to people we can trust allows us to feel met, seen and accepted in a deeply nourishing way.

But I also think it is because for some of us making friends and intimate relationships can feel like a hard, and scary, thing to do.

While being hard-wired for relationships is one of the greatest things about being human, it can also go awry. As we grow up, as tiny toddlers, and then older children, we naturally mimic the behaviour and emotion of those around us. And we use this information as templates for our later relationships.

This works really well if the relationships we grow up around are reasonably normal and functional: but if they’re not, we can see relationships as dangerous things to be avoided and end up finding the thought of reaching out to others threatening and frightening.

If your nodding your head as you’re reading this, resonating with what I’m writing, thinking that you do have some resistance to reaching out to people, I invite you to reflect on a few of these questions:

Do you make time for friendships and relationships in your life?

Do you trust that your friends and partners will be there for you? Or are you frightened you will be rejected or let down?

What emotions come up for you when you think about reaching out to people in your life?

How do you nurture the current friendships and relationships that you have in your life?

Do you use excuses – such as I’m too busy -- to prevent you from reaching out to make new friends or be in touch with old friends?

If any of these ring true, it is worth exploring how you were taught to relate as a child, and how that has impacted on your ability to reach out and connect as an adult. If this feels over-whelming, it might be worth speaking to a professional psychotherapist, to explore some of the reasons for this.

It may also be that – because of your encoding as a child – you can find yourself in toxic and difficult friendships and relationships, that can be harmful to your mental health. If this is the case, learning to reach out to others, can also mean learning to withdraw, or decrease contact with, relationships in your life that feel painful, challenging and unsupportive.