Benefits of friendship

Two woman laughing

With face-to-face communication ruled out during COVID-19, many of us discovered fun new ways to connect and nurture our relationships. We created WhatsApp groups with our neighbours, organised virtual drinks and quiz nights with friends over Zoom, and returned to the ‘old-fashioned’ practice of talking on the phone. 

As we are (cautiously) emerging from social isolation and seeking to rebuild our lives and communities as the situation improves, experts are encouraging us to keep strengthening our connections, as they’re key to boosting and maintaining our health. 

“As a GP, I’ve seen how important social networks are by observing how dangerous loneliness can be,” says Dr Kelly-Anne Garnier, GP and founder of Redefining Health. “Good friendships can make difficult periods of life so much easier to bear; they ‘buffer’ the experience for us by providing physical and emotional support.” 

Strength in numbers

As human beings our brains are wired to connect, especially during times of stress. Studies consistently show that having a strong support network can lower anxiety and depression*, help us regulate our emotions and may even reduce heart disease risk in post-menopausal women, according to a study in The North American Menopause Society journal^. In a landmark 2000 study, researchers at the University of California discovered that women especially tend to gather around their friends when life gets hard, a response they call ‘Tend and Befriend’†. The theory behind this is that social interaction buffers the stress response by triggering the release of the calming hormone oxytocin. 

“The research is pretty clear – social networks provide emotional support and physical assistance when we need it, as well as tidbits of valuable information and maybe a timely boost to our ego. We also tend to participate in meaningful activities with our friends and laugh – both of which are good for our wellbeing,” says Dr Garnier. 

You’ve got a friend in me

Friendships are a two-way street, and in these times where many of us are facing uncertainty, financial hardship and job insecurity, we can all do with some extra support. 

“Our connections have definitely changed during COVID-19,” says Noosha Anzab, a psychologist at online psychology service Lysn. 

“This incredibly difficult year has seen people crack under pressure – people learn new normals, hit the reset button and significantly struggle, whether that is physically, emotionally or financially. Some connections have also started to fray. People are stressed and lashing out, patience is running thin, and values or principles are clashing.” 

You may find yourself being called on more than ever to support those around you. This can be tricky when we’re social distancing, but online connections can be just as powerful. “We are incredibly flexible beings – we really have learnt how to adjust and embrace technology in order to bridge physical distances and keep reaping the benefits of friendships, whether near or far,” says Noosha. “I’m all for digital connection over no connection at all. You can still be a supportive friend by checking in and letting them know you are available to listen without judgement.” 

Find your tribe

Social isolation has made many of us feel lonely and frustrated. In fact, loneliness was the most widely reported source of personal stress for Australians during April, according to the third ABS Household Impacts of COVID-19 Survey. But what if this year’s pandemic and enforced slowdown has highlighted the fact that you really don’t have as many good connections as you need? 

“Firstly, I think it’s important to normalise these feelings,” says 

Dr Garnier. “These past few months our lives have been a whirlwind of breaking news, lockdown rules, negative financial impact and new routines. At various times we’ve all felt alone or isolated. That said, it’s always helpful to speak to someone and I encourage anyone feeling lonely or isolated to speak to their GP, who can take the time to get to know how your circumstances have led you to feel this way, assess your mental health and make recommendations.” 

Making friends as an adult can feel harder but it can be done, despite these challenging times. Dr Garnier recommends connecting with people online, through online book clubs, Meetup groups or special interest groups such as Beyond Blue online forums, which are a safe place to find connections and learn what others are doing.

You can also find meaningful activities to participate in or learn, where you can be around other people, such as cooking classes, craft activities or music lessons. Also look at strengthening the relationships you already have – be brave and reach out and tell a friend how you’ve been feeling. Chances are they’ve been feeling the same way and are looking for more connection, too. 

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