How Social Networks Can Impact Our Health

by Kim Patterson

We’ve all heard the saying, “you are the sum of the 5 people you spend time with the most”. The idea is that these close relationships influence us greatly, from the way we think, to the way we see ourselves and our choices. But research has suggested that our social networks have a further reaching impact on us, and into our physiological health. Suggesting that our relationships and our fundamental need for connection may impact our long term health outcomes and quality of health as we age.

Research scientists have found that individuals who enjoy strong social networks may have a buffered perception of stress. That these highly connected people aren’t as attuned to respond negatively to stressful stimuli as an individual with weaker social networks (Gaffey AE et al 2016). These highly connected individuals also have an increased stress resilience throughout life (Dantzer R et al, 2018). This increased resilience helps them to bounce back from adversity, and “to see difficulties as challenges to be mastered rather than threats to be endured” (Kobasa and Puccetti, 1983).

So not only are those who have strong social connections experiencing less stress on a day to day basis, presumably leading to a more enjoyable and pleasant life, they’re also largely dodging the detrimental health impacts acute and chronic stress can have on an individual’s short and long term health outlooks.

This can be witnessed on a small scale such as these strongly socially connected individuals benefiting from less stress hormone production, which can have an immunosuppressive effect, and as such benefitting from small wins like less colds and flus, or less muscle contraction leading to less tension headaches, as examples.

But on a larger scale, the compounding nature of our stress response would be more absent in these individuals. With improved stress tolerance these highly connected individuals might be benefiting from significant long term gains over their highly stressed, less connected counterparts. Chronic stress can be attributed to most (if not all) chronic health complaints, either as a driver for disease pathology or as a triggering event. From conditions like hypertension, to musculoskeletal disorders and dementia. Our highly connected members of society have helped safe-guarded themselves from illness, now and as they age.

So how can we foster those social connections so we can experience increased feelings of wellbeing, and improved mental and physical health;

Three ways I practice connection are below;

  1.  I light candles in a candlestick I inherited. This helps me feel connected to my family members who have passed. You can make a special effort to incorporate the use of family heirlooms into your every day or special day.
  2. If you suffer from chronic illness, or care for someone who does. I recommend you join a support group with individuals who have been through, or are going through the same thing. Try searching on facebook for one, where you can connect with people from all across the world.
  3. I always try to have dinner with a friend every fortnight. Sometimes my to-do list seems too high, or I’m tired from a busy week. My friends get me out of my head, which allows me to step away from my work, so that I have renewed clarity and focus.

FriendLine supports anyone who’s feeling lonely, needs to reconnect or just wants a chat. You can call them 7 days a week on 1800 424 287, or chat online with one of their trained volunteers. All conversations with FriendLine are anonymous.

This article is intended to be informational only and represents the opinion of the author. It is not intended to be used as medical advice and does not take the place of advice from a qualified health care practitioner in a clinical setting. Please check with your healthcare practitioner before embarking upon any of the treatments discussed.