It is February, which everyone knows as the month of love. While February 14th is commonly used as a day to celebrate romantic love, its genuine purpose is to celebrate love in all types of relationships including our love for family members and friendships. As occupational therapists, we recognize the importance of celebrating the many types of relationships in our lives. Different types of relationships (i.e., coworkers, school mates, family, neighbours, local coffee shop barista) are meaningful to us in different ways and impact how we engage in our everyday activities.
The relationships in our lives help to build the context in which all of our activities take place. Think about doing work with a friend at a coffee shop instead of at home alone, or walking your dog with a neighbour instead of on your own. When we complete activities with important people in our lives we often find the activity itself becomes more enjoyable. Engaging in these activities with loved ones can lead to meaningful conversations, exciting ideas, and most importantly feelings of love and appreciation. Experiencing these feelings as a result of engaging in meaningful relationships is better known as having strong social support.
Having strong social support has been shown to have many benefits for people which include, lowering stress, improving mood and mental well-being, speeding recovery from an illness, and even living longer! In the December 2012 report, Living Longer, Living Well, by Dr. Sinha, the provincial lead of the Ontario Senior Strategy, evidence highlights that seniors with strong social support were less likely to use hospital services and more likely to live longer and have a higher quality of life(1)!
As occupational therapists, we recognize the importance of building and maintaining a social social support network to optimize your physical and mental health, and better enable you to engage in your daily activities. Often occupational therapists work with their patients/clients to build and maintain their social support networks after injury. In a study of 13 women with a spinal cord injury, increased social support was found to be an effective strategy to motivate participants to participate in meaningful daily occupations(2).
These examples make it clear that having a strong social support system is beneficial in many ways, building and maintaining social support during a global pandemic is definitely challenging. Over the past two years many of us have likely been required to isolate and have chosen to limit social engagement for public health. Knowing that isolation can increase our stress and lower our mood, it is important to find ways to increase your social support safely. Here are a few tips from the occupational therapy community on building and maintaining social support with suggestions on doing so during a pandemic:
Reflect on support you have
Admittingly, among the busy routine of everyday life it can be difficult to remember the social support available to you. We invite you to participate in a reflective exercise about your social support. Consider the following: Who could you call for a 5 minute chat right now? In the last month who has reached out to say hello? Has someone shared exciting news with you recently? Can you think of anyone you could call if you were feeling down? Often just taking time to remember the important connections we already have in our lives can increase our feelings of support. With this exercise completed, the next tip is very important - keeping in touch!
Keep in touch (work on a project or hobby, schedule video calls)
After reflecting on the important relationships in your life, perhaps you have recalled a friend from school you haven’t spoken with in a few months, or an old colleague you no longer regularly see. Perhaps you identified that recently you haven’t spoken with a sibling as much as you typically do. The waxing and waning of relationships is typical for all people, but if you wish to keep in touch on a more consistent basis, to strengthen your social support, there are many ways to do this. Consider scheduling a weekly time to catch-up, work out, or complete an activity or project together. These can be scheduled virtually or in-person depending on comfort level. Projects can include an art project (i.e., colouring, painting, pottery), a virtual project (i.e., a video game, building a website) or a physical project (i.e., hitting step goals or walking to new parks). Having something to work towards can make it easier to connect regularly.
Go to places on a regular basis
While you may be appreciative of the social support in your life, you may be looking to build this network. If going out and meeting new people feels overwhelming, a simple strategy can be visiting the same places on a regular basis. For example, maybe every Saturday at 10 am you visit your local coffee shop. During this time you see the same barista every week. You can challenge yourself to engage with this individual a little more every week. Other examples include going to the same dog park every day, purchasing a membership to the community zoo, museums, or sporting events.
While visiting local establishments on a regular basis can certainly build your community, you can also take a more active approach. Finding meaningful places in your community to volunteer (i.e., charity organizations, zoo, sport clubs, art galleries) can connect you with many individuals with shared interests. Similarly, you may look to join spiritual communities (i.e., church, mosque, temple) to build a network with individuals with shared interests.
Take an online class
By registering for an online class you are also introducing yourself to a group of people with similar interests. Perhaps this class furthers your learning in your field, or rather is an area of interest that you never before studied. Regardless, you are likely to work with fellow students on group projects and set up study groups for tests. Many classes also create groups on social media to keep in touch and discuss class content. What can start as a shared interest in a topic may flourish into a supportive friendship!
Get a pet
Welcoming a pet into your home is a large responsibility that requires you to complete research on whether this is a good fit for you. However, it is undeniable that having a pet in your home can increase feelings of love and acceptance. Some pets, which require walks, hold you accountable for getting out in your community as well, where you have the opportunity to meet others! We recommend speaking to a friend or family member with a pet and reaching out to local pet agencies to decide if this is the right option for you.
Sinha, S. (2012). Living Longer, Living Well. Report Submitted to the Minister of Health and Long-Term Care and the Minister Responsible for Seniors on recommendations to Inform a Seniors Strategy for Ontario. PDF.
Isaksson, G., Lexell, J., Skar, L. (2007). Social support provides motivation and ability to participate in occupation. Occupational Therapy Journal of Research, 27(1). doi: 10.1177/153944920702700104