Humans are undoubtedly the epitome of a social being, meaning we share and thrive off the capability to share emotions both unconsciously and overtly with each other. While we have these interactions everyday without much thought, the vitality of these relationships to our mental wellbeing is often underestimated. As we head into the summer, in slow recovery from the pandemic, we wanted to take the opportunity to address how the COVID-19 epidemic significantly impacted the quality of social relationships and the importance of investing effort into relationships for our mental well-being.
For most of last year, both of us were unable to spend face-to-face interactions with any of our friends given that Kareena was in Chicago and Soumya was back home in South Orange County. At first, it was quite difficult for us to get used to the normalcy of FaceTime calls and Zoom meetings since we were miles away from the one place we felt connected to our friends, Los Angeles. We both often felt frustrated and dejected since the possibility of being able to hang out with our friends as a mental relaxation from the drudgery of academics was no longer an option.
Yet, it was this new reality that brought to light the importance of investing in our social relationships and creating a support system, even when physical proximity was not on our side. In an effort to make the best of the situation, we both took the initiative to schedule weekly calls with our friends to virtually catch up and even planned activities such as virtual game nights and group meals. Although it wasn’t exactly the same as if we were together in person, we soon developed a strong social network system with our friends so that we could better support each other through the difficulty of our academic workloads, MCAT stress, and of course, the uncertain nature of the pandemic.
While we may often discount time with friends as a distraction, such social interactions actually have profound health benefits. Biologically speaking, spending time with loved ones can lower your long-term risk of high blood pressure and reduce inflammation in your body. This can actually help reduce the likelihood of developing both chronic and acute fatal conditions like diabetes, stroke, and coronary artery disease. Recent studies have also demonstrated associations between social interaction and immune system health such that those who were more social had significantly improved resistance to cold, flu, and fever symptoms.
With regards to mental wellness, having healthy, productive relationships in our lives can lower our risk of depression, anxiety, and even dementia. In addition to the many biological benefits, social relationships also help us grow as individuals. By fostering deeper connections with your friends and family, we can cultivate the skill of emotional dependability, namely the ability to be a reliable support system to another person. In addition, open communication can allow you to feel more comfortable in sharing your vulnerabilities. Social relationships have also been shown to increase an individual’s level of empathy and self-esteem leading to overall higher self-reported ratings of happiness.
In sum, a look back at how social relationships have influenced us as individuals and impacted our daily life through the last year has allowed us to reaffirm the importance of investing into our friendships. As this summer approaches, we urge you all to take a moment to appreciate the different social relationships in your life and recognize the unique impact they have had on you!