Like eating well and getting plenty of exercise, relationships are one of the foundations of good mental health. Crucial for the maintenance of mental health and the prevention of problems, relationships of all kinds have their part to play, from partners and friends to colleagues and casual acquaintances. We are, after all, innately social creatures, and even the shiest person will naturally crave good company to sustain their mental wellbeing.
Exactly how relationships promote good mental health is one of the key things this year's Mental Health Awareness Week aims to recognise. The event not only hopes to shine a light on these relationships and get us all thinking about the connections that sustain us, but also how we can improve and grow these connections. This not only provides food for thought to share with our patients, but for ourselves too.
So, exactly how do relationships promote good mental health?
Talking about your feelings
All kinds of relationships present opportunities to talk about our feelings, whether it's tackling a long-standing problem with the help of your partner or having a quick chat with one of your peers. While a heavy workload and healthcare staffing issues mean you might not have any spare time at work, a few minutes spent chatting to your colleagues after your shift, or socialising at the end of the day, can make all the difference. Indeed, the Mental Health Foundation stresses that taking the time to talk honestly and openly - rather than automatically responding with 'I'm fine' to any enquiry after our wellbeing - doesn't have to mean purposefully sitting down to discuss a particular problem. Instead, try waiting for the topic to arise naturally - it can be surprising how quickly it does.
There is also an important element of culture-changing to note here too. After all, when more people open up - even a little - others are likely to be encouraged to do the same. Over time, this may help foster a conversational culture that helps promote mental wellbeing.
Of course, for many people working in nursing jobs, or as doctors, care workers or in other healthcare roles, making time for those important relationships can seem challenging. A busy schedule can quickly eat away at the time you have to spend with family and friends. Being mindful of this fact, and consciously setting aside time to enjoy the company of your closest family and friends, as well as more casual acquaintances, will help ensure you can really feel the positive mental health benefits relationships generate.
Put problems in perspective
Of course, a key element of the efficacy of talking is that, as well as allowing us to feel supported emotionally, it can help put your problems in perspective, particularly when chatting to friends.
"Friends form one of the foundations of our ability to cope with the problems that life throws at us," the Mental Health Foundation states.
The best friendships for our mental health are those that allow us to be completely honest - and that, in doing so, remaining confident that we won't be criticised or judged. When sharing problems with friends like this, it's possible to get into conversations that will help put problems in perspective, often making them feel less troubling. The result? Such issues not only tend to play on the mind less, but also no longer feel like our burden to carry alone: both are beneficial to overall mental wellbeing.
A source of non-verbal communication
Humans are social creatures - but how we socialise has changed a lot in recent years. Text messages and digital communication, including social networking, have transformed how people interact with friends, family and even partners. While digital communication certainly has its place (it can be a great way of keeping in touch when meeting up in person simply isn't possible), it does not replace face-to-face contact.
This is in no small part because so much communication is non-verbal. Made up of tone of voice and body language, the remainder is incredibly important for honest and open communication. Eye contact, a reassuring hug and sympathetic smiles are all impossible to emulate effectively in a digital environment, which is why face-to-face contact is so important when it comes to maintaining mental health.
Feeling able to ask for help
No-one is superhuman, yet so many people struggle to ask for help when they need it, often scared that doing so would show 'weakness'. On the contrary, asking for help is an excellent way of taking active, positive steps to sustain mental wellbeing.
While this is largely a cultural problem, having strong relationships can make it easier for people to ask for help when they need it, thus taking a vital step towards preventing a developing problem from evolving into a crisis. Of course, it can be that the help that's needed isn't actually available within our circle of friends, family or partner; however, that feeling of being able to ask nonetheless, of being listen to without being judged, and being encouraged to seek professional help, are all equally vital. In a work setting, being able to ask for help is crucial to avoid becoming overloaded, and the associated stress and repercussions this brings. This is especially important in high-pressure professional environments, such as healthcare jobs.
Feel good about yourself
Relationships are two-way. This means that as well as providing opportunities to talk and be listened to, they offer the chance to listen and support those we care about. Taking up the role of confidant and helping family, friends or even fellow doctors or nurses in any situation, no matter how small, is helpful in two ways. Firstly, it promotes a sense of community - rather than feeling alone in their problems, people who listen to those of others will understand that troubles are a universal experience. Secondly, providing support allows people to realise that they have the ability to help others - and this can be instrumental in recognising personal worth and boosting self-esteem, which are important ingredients in mental health.
The quality of relationships
Of course, not all relationships are created equal. Many people harbour negative relationships - friends that make them feel bad, for example - and these connections do not positively impact mental health. So, to foster mental wellbeing, it is important that we all remember to give more time and energy to connections that make us feel good, and much less to those that have the opposite effect.
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