Mar 13

Social support and the importance of opening up

social supportSome days, it seems like you can just never get a break. You know, those days when a passing car splashes muddy water into your face, you’re late for work, and you spill your coffee all over your boss? Or maybe the bus breaks down on your way to a final exam, you sprain your ankle running to get there in time, only to realize that you forgot your student ID card and can’t get into the building. Most of the time, you can look back on such days and find humor in them.

But sometimes you can’t. Like this one day, a few months ago, when I was just starting to get daily panic attacks for the first time, and I’d hit my breaking point. I remember that day vividly – I was walking around in circles, avoiding going back to my apartment. I made my way up to a park on a hill in the middle of the city, hidden behind an array of dense trees. And I contemplated my suicide.

What saved me was a quick call to my parents. They forced me to talk about what was really bothering me, to get to the root of the problem, and they encouraged me to use the coping techniques I’d learned in therapy. They also got me crying – which it turns out was all I really needed. I could have easily thrown away years of treatment and self-discovery all in a sudden moment of weakness, but it was my social support network that kept me grounded. It was the accountability that comes with having close friends and family that saved me.

I have a great social support network. I have two incredibly understanding parents who have seen me at my worst and have never judged me. I have amazing friends scattered across the country who treat me with more respect than I probably deserve. I even have outstanding authority figures in my life – bosses, supervisors, counselors, advisers. And it’s these people who have kept me on my path to recovery.

Social support is a crucial element of any journey to recovery. Our support network encourages us to stick to our treatment plan, lends a helping hand we need something we can’t do for ourselves, and provides us with one or many shoulders to cry on if need be. Going beyond the obvious benefits, social support also has a biological basis too. Socializing facilitates the release of a hormone called oxytocin that helps us stay calm and relaxed. Low levels of oxytocin may contribute to illnesses like depression and anxiety.

Social support acts as a sort of buffer against stress and illness. It has been linked to lower rates of heart disease, lower stress hormone release, and better immune function. Unequivocally speaking, science has shown that having a support network is crucial to any recovery program – whether it be from mental illness or physical illness.

So why don’t we all open up about our illnesses? Usually the answer surrounds stigma (I’ve written about what perpetuates stigma before). Our society stigmatizes mental illness, and thus we fear being judged if we open up. We fear losing friends, becoming estranged from family members, maybe even losing jobs. It’s a scary thing to open up and let very personal parts of yourself out. But hopefully we know and trust those people that we’ve invited into our lives enough to be able to share ourselves.

Here are a few tips that you might find useful in your quest to broaden your social support network.

  • Start small. Opening up about your illness is never an all-or-nothing process. If you’re not comfortable with labels, then just talking about how you get anxious from time to time is a great start. Tell your mom that it makes you uncomfortable to meet new people. Open up to your best friend about your fear of public transportation. Just getting your emotions out on the table can be incredibly cathartic.
  • Practice online. If you’re not ready to talk about your illness in person, then start by joining an internet forum to discuss your thoughts and feelings (you can try Anxiety Zone or just do a quick Google search).
  • Role play with your therapist. If you happen to be receiving professional help, role playing can be a great way to work out fears you have. Your therapist will likely have a lot of insight into possible reactions you may get and how to deal with them.
  • Send an email. If you happen to have social anxiety like me, then having a serious emotional conversation in person can be difficult even if you practice online first. An easier approach would be to send your thoughts by written word (email, Facebook, or even snail mail if you’d like). That way, you have more time to choose your wording and you’re giving the other person time to digest the information and decide on an appropriate response.

Having a social support network is incredibly important if you want to stick to your journey to recovery. If you’re not ready to open up to your own support network about your anxiety, then feel free to leave me a message through my contact page – I read and respond to all my messages!


photo by: Zanini H.

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