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The Importance Of Friendship In A Time Of Social Distancing

Jason Wachob
mbg Founder & Co-CEO By Jason Wachob
mbg Founder & Co-CEO
Jason Wachob is the Founder and Co-CEO of mindbodygreen and the author of Wellth.
mindbodygreen Podcast Guest Lydia Denworth
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In times of crisis, we typically reach out to a friend or family member to lean on. It's one of the reasons the outbreak of COVID-19 is so stressful, as our natural reaction to gather our friends and find comfort in numbers is discouraged.

While social distancing is important, science journalist and author of the new book Friendship, Lydia Denworth says it seems counterintuitive to our social-loving brains.

"You're being told not to seek comfort with your friends. It's the antithesis of what we as humans do in a time of crisis," she tells me on this episode of the mindbodygreen podcast. 

After writing an entire book on the science of friendships, Denworth sure knows a thing or two about social interaction. It only made sense to consult her during this time of social distancing, when we're encouraged not to attend social gatherings or associate with large parties. 

Although you shouldn't ignore official statements and quarantines, finding ways to interact with your friends is crucial. In fact, it may be just what we need to quell anxieties and even boost our immunity. Here's why, from the friendship expert herself, as well as what we can do to make sure our social networks remain strong. 

Friendship is beneficial for our immune systems. 

"Friendship is not just cultural," Denworth says. "It changes our health, our biology, and the trajectory of our lives." 

Neuroscientists have long studied the effects of friendship, she explains, and have found that our brains are so socially oriented, that friendship can actually influence specific parts of the brain—the way we listen to language, for instance.  

You might think it sounds obvious; it's not a new phenomenon that social interaction can have profound benefits for our mental health. But as Denworth explains, friendship has just as many benefits for our physical health (and yes, our immune health as well). In fact, she places friendship on top of the holistic healthy hierarchy: "Friendship is as important as diet and exercise for your health. Even more important on some levels." 

Of course, we have to make the distinction between positive and toxic friendships. Denworth emphasizes that positive friendships give you all those aforementioned health benefits, while negative relationships can do quite the opposite. 

"Negative friendships increase your stress responses, elevate your blood pressure, increase depression levels, and they even affect how your immune system operates," she says. So if you're looking for a reason to drop a mentally draining companion, you might want to think about social distancing even after the virus is behind us. 

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How can we maintain our friendships?

We're certainly not going to tell you to ignore social distancing entirely and grab a lunch with 10 of your closest friends. But, according to Denworth, there is a way we can maintain our friendships and reap the immunity benefits of our social network. 

The first tip, says Denworth, is to look out for people (whether a close friend or a neighbor) during this stressful time. "You might have an elderly neighbor who can't shop for themselves easily," Denworth explains. "You can go do the shopping and leave it at their front door." That way, you're adhering to social distancing while making someone feel good, which is one of the most crucial components of friendship, Denworth says. 

In the face of a crisis, some people's lives are going to be much more disrupted than others—just noticing and simply acknowledging that fact (perhaps you call or text a friend and talk about how it may be affecting them) can be a truly meaningful experience between two friends. 

Which brings me to Denworth's next tip: virtual friendships. While she believes that in-person relationships are significantly better in terms of social connection, in times of social distancing, technology can still make a difference. 

"There are ways to just purely have fun online—send each other lists of books to read or recipes to cook. It's a way of feeling like we're in it together," she offers.  

Even in this time of social distancing, it's important to find ways to maintain your friendships. Sure, it will support your immune system and physical health, but on a lighter note—interacting with friends can help you feel not so alone, quarantined or not. 

After all, "Loneliness is a serious public health problem," says Denworth. And it's been around way longer than COVID-19. 

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