Why Great Friends Are The Key To Resilience, According To An Integrative Psychiatrist

Photo: Jessica Sharmin

Resilience, or the ability to cope or adapt in stressful situations, has been shown to be an essential factor in overall mental and physical well-being. Those who are more resilient have better health outcomes, cope better with loss, and live longer. And while resilience does not protect you from experiencing difficult life situations, it can certainly help you maintain your well-being when hardship comes along. The great news is that resilience is not just something you are born with or without—it is a trait that can absolutely be learned.

There are a ton of ways to build your resilience, but perhaps the single biggest contributor is friendship. Friendships are incredibly protective in many ways; in fact, women who experience stress will have a surge in oxytoxicin, which results in seeking the company of other women for support. Studies show that those with strong friendships are far more resilient in many settings, whether dealing with difficult work situations, a serious medical illness, or even the loss of a loved one. We're learning more and more that health, especially mental health, is all about community and connection—it's about You. We. All.

Sadly, today we are more stressed and isolated than ever before. We are also juggling more and more responsibilities at home and in the workplace. Many of us have moved away from our primary social supports and extended families to pursue jobs and school. Due to this, we are getting by without the extraordinary support that was once so central to the functioning of our society.

Inherently, we know that loneliness is not good for us. In fact, a 2017 survey of 3,000 women found that a third of women are more afraid of feeling lonely than they are of getting diagnosed with cancer. However, as we get busier with our everyday responsibilities, such as work and family, we tend to put our friendships on the back burner. As a result, there is even more loneliness, with as many as 35 percent of Americans reporting feeling very lonely.

One of the biggest hurdles to creating meaningful friendships is simply that people who are socially isolated tend to engage in behaviors that keep them socially isolated, even if they wish they could socialize more. While this may seem counterintuitive, there are certain biological processes that explain our tendency to do this. As we withdraw further from our friends, we tend to increasingly view others negatively, even those with the kindest intentions, and this results in a vicious cycle that ultimately makes us feel even more isolated.

Not super social? No problem. The good news is that you don’t need to be an extrovert or have a million friends. A single close friendship could make the difference in helping to build your resilience. Studies have shown that this is true even in kids; a single close relationship can be extraordinarily protective in even the most vulnerable of children.

Want to build your resilience through better friendships? Here are some tips on how to do it:

1. First, create connections.

Don’t know a lot of people where you live? No problem. The advent of various special interest groups, such as meetups, makes it easier than ever to connect with like-minded people. Involvement in charitable or civic causes can help you feel like you are giving back to your community while simultaneously meeting people who share your interests. Consider reaching out to people you don’t know well, such as people at work that you might pass in the hallways, and strike up a conversation.

2. Then, strengthen the connections you already have.

Even people who are married or have many friends can feel lonely, with the data showing that while relationships themselves don’t necessarily build resilience and protect against loneliness, meaningful relationships certainly do. If you are married or have a partner, consider ways you can deepen that relationship. Reach out to good friends you haven’t spoken to in a while, even if it’s just to connect over coffee and catch up. Consider carving an extra hour or two out of your weekly schedule and schedule lunch or dinner regularly with a close friend.

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3. Focus on more time in person and less time online.

The internet can be a powerful tool to connect us. In fact, relationships that start off online often fare even better than those that start off in person. But people who spend excessive amounts of time on social media report feeling lonely and more depressed, so it may be time to disconnect virtually and reconnect in person. There is no substitute for ample face-to-face time when sustaining and nurturing our relationships.

4. In times of stress, reach out.

An important part of building resilience is accepting help from the people who are important to you. Struggling with stress or a tough situation? Lean on a friend for some support, which is a great way to make yourself feel better and can help you further deepen the bond you have with that friend.

It is within your power to create a greater sense of connectedness with others. And given how important such meaningful relationships are to building resilience, it may just be the next best step you take for your health.

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