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    In our fast-paced and digital world, we often overlook the significant impact that relationships have on our mental health. Whether it is a romantic relationship, close friendships, or the support of family members, human connections play a crucial role in shaping our overall well-being. Studies consistently show that nurturing healthy relationships can significantly enhance mental health and contribute to a greater sense of happiness and fulfillment. In this blog, we will explore the fascinating connection between relationships and mental health, delving into how positive connections can improve our emotional well-being and provide a strong foundation for a thriving life.

    How Relationships and Physical Health Are Connected

    When we say that relationships have the power to influence health, we don't just mean the mental aspect. Emotions are certainly always at play, but their effects on the body can become tangible, so say experts. A growing body of research suggests that strong social ties can lead to a healthier lifestyle, and even lower the risk of diseases like cancer and hypertension.

    A joint analysis of 148 studies on mortality risk by specialists at Brigham Young University discovered social relationships may increase a person's likelihood of survival by as much as 50 percent - regardless of age, gender, or state of health. In fact, data showed isolation can be just as harmful as the effects of obesity and heavy smoking.

    Loneliness Is a Public Health Crisis

    Although the value of connection to personal well-being is well established, it's rarely realized by the everyday individual. We turn on the TV and see PSAs about the risks of smoking and drinking regularly, only for the topic of relationships to be covered on half-baked sitcoms. This skews people's perceptions of what's at stake while oftentimes establishing falsehoods about what healthy dynamics look like.

    It's estimated that 20 to 43 percent of American adults over the age of 60 experience loneliness on a frequent or intense basis. Meanwhile, just under one-third (30 percent) of married couples consider their marriage at odds. Online social networks have ironically shrunk real ones as well; a study published by the Pew Research Center shows the average person's core group of friends and acquaintances has declined by one-third since 1985.

    Shocking numbers like those have prompted high-ranking officials to call for concerted efforts against loneliness. In May 2023, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy released an 85-page advisory painting the issue as a public health epidemic, recommending several initiatives that both the government and individuals can take to address it.

    The National Strategy to Advance Social Connection promotes investments in community infrastructure, such as parks, libraries, and recreation centers. Accessible transportation would further enhance the positive effect on social interaction, allowing vulnerable populations to better engage with their communities. The strategy also encourages employers to make policy changes on paid family leave - a luxury that a large portion of American workers don't have.

    Systematically, Dr. Murthy has challenged healthcare providers and advisory boards to begin focusing more of their time and energy on the issue of loneliness by training staff to identify and intervene at the earliest signs of social isolation. In addition, he has called for a comprehensive research program to examine the connection between loneliness and social media usage.

    How to Build Stronger Connections in Your Life

    The Surgeon General's advisory is just one step in the long journey of countering loneliness and social isolation. Individuals can also take proactive steps to build stronger connections in their lives - we discuss three of the most powerful below.

    Be Receptive

    Sometimes, the only thing a vulnerable person needs to stay safe is another person to talk to. Therapy is known for its life-changing effects on people who struggle with mental health conditions, but many of the same benefits can come from a simple conversation with friends or family. One study published in 2020 found that the practice of frequently confiding in others can reduce at-risk individuals' chances of developing depression by up to 15%. Anecdotally, most people would also tell you that it just feels good to talk to someone - or anyone - who will listen every now and then. Our brains are challenged with processing big emotions on a daily basis, and getting them out in the open can be a huge relief.

    To that end, receptivity to conversation is a key part of nurturing mental well-being. Understanding and validating someone's feelings can be a powerful salve for emotional pain. Letting people express themselves, without judgment, is often the best way to ensure that vulnerable individuals get the help they need. And it doesn't have to take long. Sometimes just a few kind words can be enough to make someone's day and bring them comfort.

    Turn the Phone Off

    It's no secret that social media is addictive. Instagram and Facebook have been around for less than two decades, yet they completely dominate everyday life in 2023. The 'social' in the name leads us to believe that the interactions we have with others online are just as good as real-life ones. You've got 4,600 friends - what's the point of making more?

    But the truth is, our brains crave real-life conversations. They're just wired that way. In-person conversations can stimulate more creativity and connection than anything we can find online, but many of us forget that. We keep scrolling, liking, and commenting without ever getting out of the house to meet someone new. Facebook has even faced allegations of manipulating user behavior to keep us glued to our screens for longer.

    Treating social media like the addictive thing it has become is the first step in reclaiming our lives. Take a step back and ask yourself if you can survive without checking your phone every single minute. Challenge the idea that all relationships must go through social media. Unplug for an hour, day, or weekend and see what kind of real-life feelings come your way.

    Make Getting Out a Priority

    Getting out and doing something different can be a great way to make new friends, connect with old ones, or just get away from the monotony of staring at one thing for hours on end. It feels a bit unnatural after years of online communication, but it'll help you break away from the routine and make some meaningful connections.

    There are plenty of things to do, too. Organized events like meet-ups, fitness classes, and theater shows are all great ways to get out and make new connections. Volunteering can be an incredibly rewarding experience that will help you feel connected to your community. Even something as simple as going for a walk in the park or checking out a new coffee shop can be enough to switch up your routine and bring some novelty into your life.

    The world we live in today isn't made for fostering healthy relationships, but that doesn't mean they aren't important. Developing and nurturing meaningful connections can have an immense impact on our mental health, providing a sense of security and peace during all the chaos that life throws at us.

    Espyr's suite of behavioral health services and programs is designed to provide employees with the foundational wellness support they need to thrive. If you're looking for more information or would like to speak with an Espyr specialist about workplace relationship-focused counseling solutions, read more here or contact us here.

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