In the wake of the economic crisis, we are hearing time and again how support and unity will help all of us weather this storm. We know family and friends are important- and they seem even more important during crises and emergencies. Having a network of friends who we can count on is comforting, and it may actually help make us healthier.
There are numerous physical and emotional health benefits of a strong social support network. Compared with people with close friends, lonely people tend to have higher systolic blood pressure, their bodies don't respond as well to flu vaccines, they're four times more likely to get colds and up to three times more likely to die in the six months following a heart attack. Women with close friends and strong social support tend to sleep better, heal faster when they're hurt, experience less depression, and stave off cognitive decline as they age.
So what exactly can we do to strengthen our relationships? The Mayo Clinic (http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/social-support/sr00033) offers some excellent suggestions:
· Stay in touch. Answering phone calls, returning e-mails and reciprocating invitations lets people know you care.
· Be proactive. Don't wait for someone else to make the first move. If you meet someone you think could be a good friend, invite him or her for coffee. Or be the one to strike up a conversation while in line at the grocery store.
· Know when to say no and when to say yes. Spending time with people who aren't supportive can add stress and take away valuable time. On the other hand, don't decline an invitation because you feel shy or insecure.
· Don't compete. Be happy, instead of jealous, when your friends succeed and they'll celebrate your accomplishments in return.
· Be a good listener. Find out what's important to your friends — you might find you have even more in common than you think.
· Challenge yourself. Keep looking for ways to improve yourself. Maybe it's by complaining less, being more generous or forgiving others' faults.
· Don't overdo it. In your zeal to extend your social network, be careful not to overwhelm friends and family with phone calls and e-mails. Save those high-demand times for when you really need them.
· Appreciate your friends and family. Take time to say thank you and express how important they are to you.
A strong, healthy social network is one of the most valuable things we can have and with a little effort, we make sure our networks are working well for us and for the people in them.