The last few months have brought about immense societal change in attempt to combat Covid-19. As a result, in person interaction has become limited and people are finding themselves spending a significant amount of time alone. Although it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain and build relationships, these interactions are vital for fostering mental health and can still be preserved, even during a pandemic.
Social Interaction and Mental Health
Social interaction has become a necessity for improving mental health and cultivating positive environments.
Humans are not unique in the way that social interaction is a vital aspect of our society. This is evident in even the most primitive species, where hierarchies are established and contact is necessary for group survival. In our own societies, survival is maintained through various levels of interaction, whether it involves exchanging food, materials, or information. Aside from these most basic needs, human interaction is crucial for sustaining positive mental health.
According to Ichiro Kawachi and Lisa F. Berkman, the main effect model and the stress-buffering model have been suggested as possible explanations for the importance of human relationships. The stress-buffering model postulates that social ties are directly correlated to stress levels, meaning social interaction is only necessary for individuals experiencing stress-related symptoms. On the other hand, the main effect model posits that connecting with others is beneficial, regardless of the presence of stress. The authors also suggest that these two models are not mutually exclusive, as they can both be influential in the betterment of psychological well-being.
The main effect model can be used to explain numerous ways in which social interaction and psychological well-being go hand in hand. For example, integration within one's community can provide them with a multitude of benefits, such as support from peers, a sense of security, and potentially even a purpose. Additionally, social influence can push individuals to avoid harmful situations and substances, assuming the social network in question provides a positive environment. The main effect model and community integration can also be used to highlight the stress-buffering model, as by integrating within your community, you then obtain new peers to aid with stress reduction.
This potential for stress reduction through support from peers was highlighted by Karmack et al., who studied how having a supporter present during a stressful task affected participants' heart rate. Subjects either arrived at the experiment alone or with a friend, and were tasked with completing 2 different psychological challenges. Those with a friend present were shown to have reduced heart rates during both tasks, as compared to participants in the solo group. The results indicate that even simply knowing you have support, without actually receiving it, can induce a calming effect, help in stress reduction, and improve mental health. Establishing social networks have also been shown to impact physical health along with mental health.
Physical Health Implications
Beyond simple protection and pooling of resources, social interaction and nurturing relationships may have an effect on physical health and well-being.
Jussi Taskanen et al. conducted a study on a Finnish population sample measuring the correlation between mortality rate and social isolation. A sample size of 8650 participants was analyzed over a 17 year period, spanning from 1994 to 2011. These participants were interviewed to measure their self reported levels of social isolation, with living arrangements, contact with family/friends, and community participation being the 4 dimensions measured. A positive correlation was established between social isolation and mortality, meaning mortality rates were higher for those reporting greater levels of seclusion. Additionally, mortality rate in comparison to social seclusion was found to lie on a spectrum. Those affected were not only found towards extreme levels of isolation, but also in the mild to increasing levels of social seclusion.
By connecting these findings to the previous models of social interaction, a link can be established between mortality rate due to isolation and the purpose of social environments. As indicated in LIFE’s previous research articles, such as 11 Strategies to Manage Stress & Anxiety During Quarantine, stress can lead to a number of serious health complications. Using the stress-buffering model’s theory of interacting to reduce stress, and the main effect model’s theory of interacting as means of social influence, support, etc., health complications and increased risk of mortality due to stress can be diminished. Therefore, these models provide possible explanations as to why friends and family can keep you happy and healthy.
Communication, regardless of what area of work one resides in, has always been a key factor of success. Taking this into account, social interaction and working rarely exclude one another.
As stated by David J. Deming, from 1980 to 2012, jobs that include a high level of social interaction have increased by almost 12 percent. This is in contrast to less social jobs, mainly found in the STEM workforce. With the job market expanding in this direction, social skills are exceedingly being sought out and rewarded. Establishing connections opens opportunities for achieving success and furthering one’s career.
Additionally, for workers overseeing employees, communication and support has been shown to improve mental health and boost work productivity. This is outlined in the LIFE article How to Optimize Work Environments for Employee Wellness and Job Satisfaction. The job demand-control-support model proposed by Samuel B. Harvey et al. highlights the importance of maintaining positive and supportive interactions with coworkers. As stated in the previously mentioned article, this model indicates the influence social interaction has on the average worker. Social support is critical in the workplace, both promoting the psychological well-being of workers and improving overall quality of work. Therefore, maintaining and improving social interactions in the workplace is required for the advancement of success while ensuring good health.
Building and Maintaining Relationships
Now that you know the importance of maintaining and establishing relationships, how can you do so during this pandemic? Well luckily, the answer can be found on the device you’re reading this very article with. Technology, now more than ever, is key.
Before, you could simply attend social gatherings and initiate novel conversations in these settings. However, since social gatherings of large proportions are prohibited to reduce risk of spreading Covid-19, turning to your laptops and mobile devices is necessary to find new social opportunities. Samantha K. Brooks et al. perpetuated the importance of staying connected during self isolation and quarantine through the use of technology, specifically mobile phones. Boredom, anxiety, and a sense of isolation from the world was found to be a common effect of this pandemic, and even minimal contact through technological devices can mitigate these consequences. Luckily, new social network resources have made virtual social gatherings easier to accomplish. Additionally, applications intended to build new relationships can be found in surplus by opening up your phone’s app store.
Through the use of technology, socially distanced gatherings can also be organized, as long as they meet the guidelines indicated by your state of residence. Covid-19 is an extremely serious matter and the information provided by the CDC should be regarded with the utmost importance. However, this does not mean our lives must come to a halt. This pandemic is not the end of our social lives, but simply the beginning of discovering new ways to build and sustain relationships.
The aforementioned models and studies indicate the importance of fostering a healthy social life. Over the last few months, this pandemic has challenged us in every way possible. This is especially evident in our ability to communicate with the outside world. Fortunately, technological advancements have provided us with the tools necessary to adapt our lifestyle in response to the virus. New challenges may lie ahead, but regardless of what form they may take, steady communication and support from one another will help us make it through this together.
Harvey SB, Modini M, Joyce S et al. Can work make you mentally ill? A systematic meta-review of work-related risk factors for common mental health problems Occupational and Environmental Medicine 2017; 74:301-310.
Brooks SK, Webster RK, Smith LE, Woodland L, Wessely S, Greenberg N, Rubin GJ. The psychological impact of quarantine and how to reduce it: rapid review of the evidence. Lancet. 2020 Mar 14;395(10227):912-920.