People who feel depressed tend to isolate themselves from family and friends. But doing just the opposite can help ease symptoms of depression.
“There’s an abundance of evidence from around the world that social support, whether from family or friends or church or work, decreases the likelihood of depression and psychological distress,” says Prakash Masand, MD, a psychiatrist and the CEO of Global Medical Education in New York City.
In a study published in the journal Preventive Medicine in April 2014, researchers followed Canadian teens for about 14 years and discovered that teens who had social support were significantly less likely to become depressed after experiencing work or financial stress in early adulthood. In addition, an analysis of studies published in the January/February 2011 edition of the journal General Hospital Psychiatry that examined the link between peer support and depression found that peer support helped reduce symptoms of depression.
Why is social support such a big factor in depression recovery and prevention? One hypothesis is that positive social support helps boost serotonin, a chemical that can affect mood. Stress is known to reduce the amount of serotonin and other neurotransmitters in the brain, and social support can provide a buffer for stress.
Ways to Find Social Support for Major Depression
Where can you find social support to help you feel less depressed? Possibilities include:
- Family. “For most people, family is the main source of support,” Dr. Masand says. But support can also come from friends, classmates, co-workers, neighbors, and people you worship with. Sometimes a therapist can fill the role of a family member or friend as well, he says. Plan weekly family barbecues in the summer and dinners or outings in the colder months to stay connected. Choose activities everyone likes.
- Fitness centers. Sign up for a gym membership, and you might just see people you like there every day. An advantage to “gym friends” is that having them means you’re going to go to the gym, and exercising is another important part of depression treatment.
- Nonprofit groups. Volunteering is a good way to find social support. When you volunteer, you not only help others but also yourself. Volunteer to do something you enjoy, and you’ll also make friends with people who have similar interests. Give a few hours a week to the local library or senior center. Be a tour guide at a museum. Walk dogs for a shelter. Stuff envelopes or make calls for your favorite political candidate. The possibilities are endless.
- Support groups. Most depression support groups meet in person, but others meet online, where you can remain anonymous. Some people prefer being in a group led by a professional trained as a group leader, while others are more comfortable in informal settings. Choose one that works best for you.
- Apps. Numerous smartphone apps can help you stay in touch with family, friends, and classmates, or meet new people, and many of them are free. To find social networking apps you like, search online for “apps that help you make friends.”
How to Be Social If You’re Shy
Many people struggle to make and maintain social connections, and major depression can make this even harder. But you don’t have to be an extrovert to get the social support you need to ease depression symptoms.
If you’re an introvert, or just on the shy side, start small and choose settings and situations where you feel in your element the most. For example, it may be helpful to choose one-on-one gatherings rather than meeting a big group of strangers. Or if you’re attending a big get-together where you don’t know anyone, don’t hesitate to bring a friend.
Learning relaxation and breathing techniques may also help if you’re overwhelmed by the size of a crowd or any overly aggressive members in a group or at work. Engaging in meditation or prayer before a get-together can be soothing and distract you from anxiety and fears.
The most important thing to remember is to be kind to yourself. Don’t blame yourself for not being as outgoing as some extroverts you know, and listen to your limits. If a couple of hours of social time is all you can do, then go home soon after. Most important, don’t use drugs or alcohol to feel better in social environments — straying from your depression treatment plan can backfire and exacerbate symptoms.
How Much Daily Social Time Do You Need?
How often someone with depression should be social varies from person to person. “I encourage my clients to do things that give them simple pleasure at least once a day,” Masand says. “The more social activities you do, the greater the likelihood you’ll get better quicker.”
A social activity can last as little as 15 minutes and can be as simple as chatting on the phone or texting with a friend. It’s easy to find time in your day for at least that much, and since it’s bound to make you feel better, be sure to make it a priority.
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