One key habit to improve your mental health in 2021

When you want to improve your health, you focus on the basics: eat better and exercise more. But here is something else to consider: your social life. We’re not referring just to how often you go out with friends, but how your relationships impact your overall health Download the apartment floor plan.

Connecting to friends is a healthy habit: more so now than ever

On the back of a difficult 2020, fostering friendships and nurturing relationships is more important now than ever. Several studies have been able to show that positive social support, whether that comes from friends, family members or a partner, is strongly associated with better mental and physical health. A robust social life can lower stress levels; improve mood; encourage positive health behaviours and discourage damaging ones; boost cardiovascular health; improve illness recovery rates; and aid virtually everything else in between – including your resilience to stress and improve immunity. A strong social life can also boost the effects of already-healthy behaviours, such as exercise.

The power of isolation

The pandemic has left many feeling sad, lonely, and anxious. The virus itself has contributed to physical isolation, but the waiting, wondering, and hoping to return to some sort of normality, has had a far deeper impact on mental health.

Social isolation is linked to higher rates of chronic diseases and mental health conditions. In fact, isolation can even start changing the cells in your body, leading to more inflammation and a lowered immunity! One study puts the heightened risk of dying from loneliness in the same category as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, being an alcoholic or abusing other substances and not being active. It also surpasses health risks associated with obesity. In fact, studies show that loneliness increases the risk of early death by 45% and the chance of developing dementia in later life by 64%…. Let that sink in for a minute.

Digital “friends” don’t count!

Thanks to social media, we’re more connected than ever before, but also possibly the loneliest. If you think about how you interact with your social media “friends” – by either liking a post or sending a sticking-out-tongue emoji, you’ll understand the difference between that and an actual conversation, in person. Interestingly, South Africa has been ranked in the top 10 “loneliest” countries, with around 24% of the population living alone.

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Social interaction in the time of COVID

Face to face time with friends and family is powerful in terms of health benefits, but a FaceTime, Google duo session or Zoom chat can also be beneficial. Texting and calling are great, and important, but when it comes to feelings of connectedness, we need to see each other’s faces. One study found that people who regularly used video chat were only half as likely to develop symptoms of depression compared to those who used email, social media, instant messaging or no form of digital communication at all. Why? “Seeing” a friend or loved one in “person”, looking at their facial expressions, returning a smile and sharing familiar glances allows for deeper communication. It also prevents the opportunity for misinterpretation that so often happens in text messages.

Prioritise your health by prioritising your social interactions and staying connected. Do this by carving time out every day for meaningful personal interactions. Some examples could be

  • Set up a recurring video or zoom meeting time (and stick to it). Without this, weeks can go by without touching base.
  • If you miss movie nights or watching your favourite show with your friends, have a “Watch Party” by getting everyone to watch it at the same time, and text each other in the background.
  • Online board games or multiplayer app games can help generate some healthy competition.
  • Do a virtual tour of a museum or famous landmark that you’ve always wanted to travel to together.
  • Find other ways of connecting virtually. There are many creative solutions, such as doing an online fitness challenge, or a Youtube cooking class with your BFF. Be creative, take chances! You’ll be surprised at how much this can impact your overall well-being.

If you’re comfortable with meeting up in person, exercise with a friend, arrange a quick catch up over lunch, share a meal or commit to a weekly coffee (while all the time maintaining your distance). Regardless of how busy you may be, spending 5 to 10 minutes talking, smiling and laughing with give your health a serious boost. Connected conversation with friends and family can make your social life (and theirs!) feel a lot more rewarding.