How to Grow, Strengthen, and Maintain Your Social Support Network
A coffee break with a friend at work, a quick chat with a neighbor, or a phone call with a sibling. These are all ways to invest a little time in developing and maintaining lasting relationships with others. Social connections made up of your friends, family, colleagues, and peers, can act as a buffer against the impact of stressful or negative life experiences on your mental health. As we know all too well from quarantine, a lack of social connections can lead to isolation and loneliness. One aim of Men’s Mental Health Awareness Month is to raise awareness of the need for men to receive emotional support and share their feelings, especially during times of distress.
It’s important to remember that American culture has taught boys and men to be independent and self-reliant above all else. Emotional toughness has been emphasized over the encouragement of close physical contact and emotional expression (McKenzie et al, 2018). There is often little space in our society for boys and men to open up emotionally. For many men, the cost of not investing time or energy in maintaining social connections has meant a decrease in overall well-being.
There are countless benefits to expressing your feelings and articulating your emotional experiences to others, including, improving your mental health, alleviating the effects of emotional distress, improving your ability to combat stress, and enhancing future coping in stressful situations.
Here are some ways to commit to growing your social support and to start surrounding yourself with good friends and confidants:
Grow Your Network: Volunteer at a local nonprofit, join a gym or fitness group, take a class at the local college or community center, or search on Meetup.com or local interest website to find a group, connect with others and meet new people in your area.
Strengthen Connections: Be a model for “emotional authenticity” and vulnerability. This will normalize emotional availability and make it okay for others to feel they can follow your lead. How? Get curious. Show a friend they matter by asking them follow up questions during your conversations.
Share an intimate detail with a friend about a current or past struggle. Similar to asking questions, sharing personal details about yourself can play a key role in strengthening connections, and being listened to can bring you personal comfort and relief.
Nurture Your Relationships: Actively participate by staying in touch. This includes answering calls and texts to show you care, and reciprocating plans and invites out.
Show appreciation in your relationships. Tell your friends and family how much they mean to you regularly and thank them for being there for you.
Give back in times of need. Be there for others when they need you and listen. Be encouraging and supportive.
Communicating on a deeper level and learning that others share similar experiences and feelings helps us understand that we’re not alone, to learn about ourselves and others, and to feel less isolated. Cultivate and foster your social support network to improve your overall mental well-being, physical health, and longevity.
McKenzie, S. K., Collings, S., Jenkin, G., & River, J. (2018). Masculinity, Social Connectedness, andMental Health: Men's Diverse Patterns of Practice. American journal of men's health,12(5), 1247–1261.https://doi.org/10.1177/1557988318772732
Mental Health Counselor Intern