There are some people who get just plain giddy at the thought of taking off into the woods el solo for a week. I am not one of those people. I mean don’t get me wrong. I like my alone time to a certain extent (like…in the shower…most of the time…jooooooooke.). Even those of us who are quintessential extraverts need decompression time (I’ll visit the introvert/extrovert topic in an upcoming post). However, whether you’ve been mistaken for a psychopath, or every ex has called you “needy,” there is a plethora of evidence out there that social isolation contributes to depression, and that social connection and support contibute to recovery. We are social beings, us humans. Back in Caveman days, a Lone Ranger was more like “Today’s Special” for tigers, and even if he was lucky enough to skirt danger, he would likely eventually die of starvation.
The thing with social connection and well-being is, you generally need one to have the other. The chicken and the egg (on an aside, I’m not a huge fan of cliches like the whole chicken-egg thing. Can we go with something else for the metaphor? The water or the cloud? Texting or social phobia? Bieber or Canada?). Social support may be both a protective and remedial factor when it comes to depression; but the problem is, when you’re feeling depressed, the last thing you want to do is throw yourself a party. This is because depression lies to us. It’s a dirty, filthy, liar! “Megan, no one wants to be around you when you’re feeling this way. You’ll just bring everyone down.” “Megan, you’re just going to feel anxious around a crowd right now. Everyone will be judging you.” “Megan, you’d probably feel a lot better if you sat around on Facebook for 3 hours looking at how everyone else is so happy and you’re the only sad person in the world right now.” LIES! Depression will also tell you to sleep all day, eat a tub of ice-cream, drink a bottle of Jack, skip the gym…and how does that leave you feeling? Guilty, worthless, lonely, ashamed, you get the idea. Then, once you’ve declined every social invitation for the past month, you’ll probably stop receiving them (you’d probably stop inviting a buddy out to do something if they said “No” every time, too). And what does depression tell you? “Nobody likes you anymore. See! You didn’t even get invited to (insert friend’s name here)’s birthday.”
SO when you are feeling down and recognize that you are isolating yourself from friends or making up excuses not to go to social events (“I have to do laundry/call my Great Aunt’s cousin-in-law/walk my goldfish”), STOP! Don’t give into depression’s manipulation, and practise self-compassion while you step out of your “comfort” zone and be around people. You don’t have to go to a speed-dating event of invite every person you know over. Rather, call up a trusted friend or two and see if they’d be up for something chill. If you don’t feel like talking, see if they want to go to a movie or do something where you don’t feel pressured to be “on.” Similarly, if you find yourself screening your calls, remind yourself it’s depression’s lies, and try to psych yourself up enough to answer.
If your social network is lacking because you’ve been isolating for some time, fear not. There are multiple things you can do to expand it or reconnect with old friends.
Reconnecting with old friends
A lot of people feel like once they become disconnected from a friend/group, the friendship is gone forever. I like to think of relationships (romantic and otherwise) as being dynamic. Think of two cars driving side-by-side along “the road of life” (ugh), but imagine these are really bad drivers and they’re swerving all over the place as they go (for the purpose of this visual, imagine they never crash into each other or anything else). The tracks they leave behind are the tracks of relationships over time. We grow apart and together, and sometimes we end up on separate roads, but we can often influence the closeness of these relationships. I am fortunate to have very good friends, but even they tell me I dropped off the radar for about 3 years (took a “off-road” detour to “Unhappyville”). If you don’t feel comfortable calling up an old friend and explaining that you’ve been depressed for the past while, send them a message or a text. You can always say you’ve been busy and realize how much you miss hanging out with them, or something like that.
Making new friends
Expanding our social networks can be tough past the age of 5.There was a time when all it took was a good Littlest Pet Shop collection and you were the most popular kid around. Now, if you were to invite a stranger over to “play” you’d prooooobably be arrested. So, there’s a more strategic way to making new friends (that will not lead to you being labelled an offender). Most people who are depressed and disconnected yearn for close connection, but too often they hope they’ll get it from a first meeting, and end up being disappointed when they unsurprisingly don’t. Take some of the pressure off by attending a social situation grown from mutual interests. For example, join a team or a Meetup group (this is an amazing resource), take a course, or sign up to volunteer. Automatically, you have something in common with the people around you, and you don’t have to worry about being “interesting” enough. On that note, people often make the mistake of believing they need to be “interesting,” when really, they just need to be “interested.” Ask other people about them. Act interested, even if you’re not. People usually enjoy talking about themselves (why do you think I started this blog?). Now, you will likely feel drained after forcing yourself to be “on” for the duration of the event. Unfortunately, it may feel like a real effort to begin with. So, make sure you congratulate and reward yourself with compassion, or a fancy coffee, or a whatever else floats your boat (minus the tub of ice cream or bottle of Jack). It takes time to rebuild a social network, just like anything else, but it will become less of a chore as your mood lifts. Eventually, you might even find yourself enjoying it.
So, to summarize: Depression lies. Socialize! (Sing it with me now!)