The holidays may be stressful but they can also be joyous, hopeful and beneficial to our health and well-being. Reaching out to others and participating in social situations may be the key. Research shows that having close friends and family can produce far-reaching positive effects on our wellness, and the holidays offer (like they say in crime dramas) motive and opportunity.
According to the Mayo Clinic, a strong social support network can be critical to help you through the stress of tough times, whether you’ve had a bad day at work or a year filled with loss or chronic illness. Experts suggest that since supportive family, friends and co-workers are such an important part of your life, it’s never too soon to cultivate these important relationships.
It is also never too late, and the holidays can provide opportunities to reach out and strengthen those important connections. A network of supportive relationships contributes to psychological well-being.
“As human beings we are social creatures by nature,” says Kristin Botwinick, a licensed clinical social worker at Professional Counseling Services in Camillus. “Numerous studies have shown how positive relationships impact physical and emotional health.”
Dr. Sharon Brangman, professor of medicine and division chief in geriatrics at SUNY Upstate Medical University, encourages intergenerational gatherings. “Most of us spend time with friends and co-workers who are, more or less, around our own age. For older adults, the holidays are a great time for intergenerational interactions that might not occur other times of the year. Older adults often serve as the memory-keepers for a family, and the holidays are a great time to refresh these memories and create new ones.”
Research evidence suggests that when you have a social support network, you benefit in the following ways:
• Increased sense of belonging. Spending time with people helps ward off loneliness. Whether it’s a group of parents, dog lovers, fishing buddies or siblings, just knowing you’re not alone can go a long way toward coping with stress.
• Increased sense of self-worth. Having people who call you a friend reinforces the idea that you’re a good person to be around.
• Feeling of security. Your social network gives you access to information, advice, guidance and other types of assistance should you need them. It’s comforting to know that you have people you can turn to in a time of need.
If you want to improve your mental health and your ability to combat stress, surround yourself with at least a few good friends and confidants.
Botwinick offers an example. “I have worked with a number of people over the years that felt so much better once they allowed themselves to expand their notion of family. One woman in particular comes to mind. She came in almost paralyzed with depression and low self-worth. She was hobbled with chronic pain and other physical ailments. She spent most of her days lying on her sofa, feeling guilty that she could no longer work. Over the course of time she began reaching out to help herself, and developed a strong network of helpers. A few years later this woman has transformed, physically and emotionally. She recently returned from a trip overseas. She often credits her network of angels for her recovery.”
But while we reach out to others, we also need to be mindful of our expectations. Placing unrealistic expectations on our relationships or encounters can lead to disappointment, feelings of frustration or rejection, and damage relationships that might otherwise be mutually beneficial.
“During the holiday season, many people have high expectations for how their holiday should go or how others should act,” notes Botwinick. She is reminded of a saying that high expectations are premeditated resentments. People sometimes set their expectations by what they think is going on in the lives of other people. “Just be aware and take responsibility for your own well-being, your own enjoyment.”
Taking the time to build a social support network is a wise investment not only in your mental well-being but also in your physical health and longevity. Research shows that those who enjoy high levels of social support stay healthier and live longer.
Brangman makes this suggestion: “When families and friends get together during the holidays there is often a greater opportunity for social contact with different age groups. We all can learn from these interactions, especially when they occur from the perspectives of learning, understanding and enjoyment. Leave judgment and control at the front door.”
While holidays can be hectic and stressful, a mindful approach to personal encounters can make it easier and enjoyable to engage with family, friends and co-workers. Even the smallest social connection may be beneficial, from sending and receiving holiday greetings by phone, cards or social networks to participating in holiday parties or less formal gatherings. Even engaging in pleasant conversations with cashiers can make your day and theirs a little brighter.
Consider inviting a friend to share a meal, event or shopping trip. Volunteer to help out a local charity. Attend religious services or community holiday programs. Make the call you’ve been putting off. Share a story with someone. Smile at strangers.
Social interaction during the holidays can reflect the spirit of the season, bring you joy, generate a little happiness for you and others, and benefit your health and well-being, all at the same time. So have fun socializing, spread good cheer during this season of hope and peace, and you could be off to a healthier start in the New Year.
Marnie Blount-Gowan is a member of the Crouse Hospital
Integrated Health Alliance, advocate of mind body health awareness, and
editor of Realewell.com.