Making Friends & Learning to be Social

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When someone decides to make a chance to better their health, there are two big things they usually focus on: diet and exercise. They start a new workout program, clean up their diet, sometimes they even prioritize getting enough sleep and managing stress. But while exercise, nutrition, sleep, and stress are the main four pillars of physical health, they are only one side of the coin. The other side is mental health. Mental and physical health are so inextricably linked that it’s almost impossible to have one without the other. The mental health aspect of health deserves an entire blog post of its own and right now I just want to focus on one key aspect of mental health that I have been struggling with lately: social connection.

I started struggling with health issues a few months ago and as a result, I have been overhauling my lifestyle. I knew I was doing great with my diet and exercise so if I was going to improve my health with lifestyle, I had to look into other aspects of my life. One of the big things that stood out was my lack of social connection over the last two years. After graduating college, I started working for myself and for a film producer. So the only people I was regularly interacting with were a 50 year old Swiss man and my boyfriend. I did not have a social life.

Humans are inherently social creatures. Even if you are introverted and don’t enjoy social interaction (like me), it is still something that we need to stay healthy. Social isolation has been shown to lead to higher rates of chronic illness, mental health conditions, and may even catalyze cellular-level changes that promote chronic inflammation and suppress immunity. One longitudinal study that accounted for other lifestyle factors showed that social isolation and loneliness increased a person’s risk of death by 25% among those with a history of heart attack, and by 32% for those with a history of stroke. Social isolation is thought, by some, to be as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes per day.

So, needless to say, when I started to change my lifestyle, social connection became a priority. My Nutrition Therapy Practitioner gave me an assignment of having at least one social interaction per week (excluding interaction with my boyfriend and roommates). I’ve been making a huge effort to make this happen and I’m proud to report that I have definitely averaged at least one social interaction per week! Some weeks plans got canceled last minute so I missed out but other weeks I had several different social interactions.

 
 

Not going to lie, as an introvert who easily finds comfort in being alone, this has been very difficult for me. This might sound ridiculous to those of you who love being surrounded by people all the time, but for me, it has been as challenging as getting myself to consistently go to bed on time. But I’m getting better and better at it. This last week I spent time with people FOUR TIMES! I even went out to a bar with friends—something I don’t particularly enjoy even when I’m drunk—and had a great time dancing my little sober heart away (I’m currently not drinking any alcohol due to try to recover from my health issues). So here are some pro tips that I’ve learned along the way to help you if you are struggling with the social side of health:

  1. Stop saying no. I didn’t realize how many social opportunities I was turning down until I stopped letting myself say no to everything. Turns out my friends actually like me and want to hang out with me. I was just turning them down because I “didn’t have time,” or because it wasn’t worth the social anxiety I get from saying yes. Going to the bar is usually something I would have said no to. But I didn’t and I had a great time.

  2. Start asking. Since graduating, I could probably count on one hand the number of times I actually reached out to someone to ask to hang out. You can’t expect other people to always reach out. If you want something to happen, take control of your own life and MAKE it happen. I didn’t think anyone would really want to hang out with me until I started asking and started hearing “yes.”

  3. Be open to new activities or ways of being social. As I write this, one of my best friends is sitting next to me studying. We haven’t exchanged more than a few words in the last hour but just the mere presence of another human brings me out of my bubble of isolation. I never before considered a study date as a way to be productive AND be social but I’m going to do more of this now!

  4. Create space to be social. One of the biggest things standing in the way of my social life was that I was simply not making time for it or prioritizing it. I allowed work to take precedent, which conveniently gave me an excuse to say no so socializing. Since committing to giving myself a work cut off and being more flexible with my schedule, I have been able to have more time in my life to share with other people.

  5. Make mutual friends. I have been particularly invested in saying yes to invitations to hang out with groups of people where I don’t know everyone. This has allowed me to expand my social circle without having to go make friends with complete strangers. I haven’t clicked with everyone I’ve met, but I’m getting to know some people who I think one day could be good friends

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Since spending more time in social situations, I feel more connected with the world, more grounded in my own life, and like my world is so much bigger. I don’t feel isolated by my work anymore and instead have more values outside of my own work and life. If you also struggle with maintaining a social life, try out some of these tips.

Soon I hope to branch out even farther and try to make friends with strangers by joining groups of people with similar interests. I’m not quite ready for that next big step yet but once I take it, I will update you with what I learn and give you my tips for making new friends!

 
Marisa Chaela