All of us will experience difficulties in our lifetime. Loss, physical or mental illness, financial insecurity, infidelity, estrangement, and even legal woes are just a few of the many challenges we may face. While we cannot predict and prepare for every eventuality, we can benefit greatly by being able to draw upon members of our support system in our time of need.
What is a Support Network?
There are two types of support networks. One is a network of people you have cultivated over time that will provide emotional or practical support when you most need it. These aren’t “fair-weather friends” who disappear when things get inconvenient. These are people who truly care about you and who you can rely on when times get tough. They can come from any of your social circles including friends, neighbours, co-workers, and family. Another type of support system is a support group. Support groups are usually founded on structured meetings led by a mental health professional or layperson with personal experience of the issue. Both types of networks can provide great comfort by demonstrating that you are not alone during your darkest days.
Why is a Strong Support Network Important?
While the benefits of having a strong support network may seem intuitive, research backs it up. Studies show that having a strong support system provides a sense of well-being, reduces anxiety and stress, improves mental health, and helps you cope better during duress. It may even contribute to a healthier and longer life by staving off obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and Alzheimer’s. Long-term benefits aside, there is a sense of security and peace that comes with knowing you have people to count on. Conversely, with a limited or non-existent support network, it’s too easy to feel isolated, invisible, and uncared for — all of which can contribute significantly to depression and a sense of hopelessness.
How to Cultivate a Strong Support Network
When we were little it seemed that friends and potential friends were everywhere — school, the local park, Brownies, the kids next door. Making friends was free and easy and we didn’t think too much about it. As an adult, making friends, and especially evolving an acquaintance into a close friend, can be more challenging. It must develop organically and, of course, both parties must want it. The first step to cultivating a social support network is to get out and get involved. Here are a few ideas:
- Sign up with online social network groups. These provide a terrific opportunity to meet up with others who share your interests, age group, or circumstances, e.g. new to the area, divorced, etc. Be sure to use only established, reputable sites, and focus on group activities/meet-ups to connect with the most people.
- Volunteer. Outside of family and work, what matters to you? Pick a cause you’re passionate about and reach out to local organizations to help. This is a good way to meet others who share your interests and values.
- Join a gym. Rather than working out alone, why not take a fitness class? This enables you to connect with others and get fit at the same time. Before long, you may be going for a post-class coffee with your new fitness friends.
- Take a class. Your local college or community centre will likely offer several choices for evening classes and is a good resource for connecting with others in your neighbourhood with similar interests. What have you always wanted to do? Write short stories? Try your hand at watercolours? Learn a language? Don’t wait any longer; explore what’s available and sign up!
- Join a support group. If you are having trouble dealing with a life challenge, and even if you have a strong social network in place, a support group may help. Not only will you meet others dealing with the same issue, you may learn from their experiences and find new or better ways to cope.
Remember, growing your social support network takes time and effort. Importantly, it requires giving as well as taking. Ask yourself, what would make an ideal friend and supporter, and be that friend to others. Finally, don’t wait until you’re dealing with a crisis; start building your network today.
If you are struggling with a life challenge or are having difficulty with relationships, we can help. Please call us for an appointment at (905) 873-9393.