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The protective power of relationships on your mental health

Specialist Nurse Adviser at Bupa UK
05 August 2020

Having strong positive relationships is good for your health and happiness. These aren’t just the relationships you have with your partner, family and friends. It includes the connections you form with work colleagues, healthcare professionals, neighbours and other people during your lifetime. Here I’ll explain why having strong relationships can boost your wellbeing and help you deal with life’s challenges.

Health benefits

As humans, we are naturally sociable creatures, needing other people in our lives to offer practical and emotional support. Feeling lonely or being socially isolated can have a negative effect on your physical and emotional health. But if you have strong social relationships, you may be happier and physically healthier than people who aren’t so well connected. You may also live longer and have fewer mental health problems.

Social benefits

Having a strong social network means you know there are people who care for you and will help you if you need their support. And they know you’ll be there for them in tough times too.

Your social network may:

  • give you a strong sense of belonging and social identity
  • make you more likely to keep healthy, such as stopping smoking, drinking less alcohol, taking more exercise or seeking health advice if you need it
  • help you to access more information about your health, as well as health services
  • help you to deal with stress, such as pressure at work, the breakdown of a relationship, redundancy, retirement or bereavement

If you have a good relationship with the people you work with, this can make you happier and more productive at work.

Positive relationships

Having positive relationships isn’t about having a wide circle of friends and family. Having a few people to confide in can be better than having a large network of people you hardly chat to. It’s the quality of your relationships that’s important. If your relationships aren’t positive ones, it’s easy to feel lonely, even when you’re in the company of family and friends.

People in a stable relationship have been found to be happier, healthier and more satisfied with life. Being in a poor or toxic relationship can have the opposite effect, and for people living in conflict it can be more damaging than being alone. Research also shows that people in unhappy or negative relationships are less healthy than those who feel isolated or have no relationships at all.

Community spirit

Research shows that being involved in community life can be good for your mental health. Getting to know some of the people who live in your local area may make you feel happier and supported. And being part of a close-knit community can help you feel more in control of what’s going on around you. People who are involved in local groups, sports, clubs and volunteering opportunities have, in general, better physical and mental health than those who aren’t.

Many communities are online, through social media, networking sites or support groups. It’s easier now than ever to connect with people you’ve never met. But while online friends can be supportive and enrich your life, it’s important to stay safe online too.

Changing times

Your relationships and social connections may change throughout your life. You may find it harder to spend time with family or friends if you’re under stress , have caring responsibilities or have long working hours or other commitments.

Some people feel more socially isolated as they get older. This may be after retirement, bereavement or becoming less mobile. Your health can affect your relationships too. You may find it harder to keep in touch with family and friends if you’re not feeling your best, physically or emotionally.

Building stronger relationships

Not everyone finds it easy to stay socially connected or find new friends. But there are lots of things you can do to build and maintain stronger, positive relationships.

  • Be kind to yourself: How you feel about yourself can affect how you interact with others. If you look after your own physical and mental health, you’ll find it easier to keep in touch with your loved ones.
  • Make more time: Set aside a specific time slot each day, week or month to connect with family and friends to see how they are.
  • Find new ways to keep in touch: If you can’t see each other face to face, make use of technology, especially messaging, phone calls and video chats.
  • Be there for them: When you’re talking to your family and friends, concentrate on their needs by switching off any distractions, such as your emails or social media.
  • Share the fun stuff: Don’t just get in touch when things aren’t going well, as it’s good to share positive news too.
  • Be ready to share: If you’re struggling with life’s challenges, talk about how you’re feeling, so your loved ones can support you too.
  • Recognise negative relationships: If some relationships are making you unhappy, think about how you can resolve any issues so you can move forwards.
  • Expand your network: Look for local volunteering opportunities, clubs that interest you or groups for people with shared interests. And see if you can get to know some – or more – of your neighbours.

Fatmata Kamara
Specialist Nurse Adviser at Bupa UK

    • Relationships in the 21st century: the forgotten foundation of mental health and wellbeing. Mental Health Foundation. www.mentalhealth.org.uk, published May 2016
    • Local action on health inequalities: Reducing social isolation across the life course. Public Health England. www.gov.uk, published September 2015
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    • What is social prescribing. The King’s Fund. www.kingsfund.org.uk, published February 2017
    • Looking after your mental health during the coronavirus outbreak. Mental Health Foundation. www.mentalhealth.org.uk, last reviewed July 2020

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