Humans are social creatures—we’re designed to live together with other humans in order to survive and thrive. And our ability to connect with others has huge implications for mental health, too. A new study of over 100,000 people published in The American Journal of Psychiatry found that one of the most important ways to prevent and mitigate depression is social connection.
Researchers sought to identify what “modifiable factors” (aka things that could be changed) were associated with depression and came up with a list of over 100 variables, from time spent napping to diet and exercise. They then took the strongest variables and applied a statistical model to estimate which of these factors has a cause-and-effect relationship with depression (rather than just an association).
The standout modifiable factor that could predict depression, they found, was one’s social connections (or lack thereof). “Far and away the most prominent of these factors was frequency of confiding in others, but also visits with family and friends, all of which highlighted the important protective effect of social connection and social cohesion,” said senior author Jordan Smoller, MD, ScD associate chief for research in the MGH Department of Psychiatry in a press release.
Social connection is critical for mental health, but how can you connect with people during a pandemic, where most in-person social interactions are considered unsafe? The key to doing so effectively doesn’t necessarily lie with Zoom, but in your personal love language. Originally introduced in Gary Chapman’s best-selling 1992 book, love languages are ways of communicating based on the different methods humans use to express and understand love. They are: words of affirmation, quality time, receiving gifts, acts of service, and physical touch. Here, therapists affiliated with Talkspace share how to maximize your mental health-affirming socialization with your unique love language in mind.
How to connect during the pandemic, according to your love language
1. Words of affirmation
If you want more words of affirmation (like, I’m so proud of you! or You’re so good at XYZ thing!) in your life, Beth Derickson, LCSW has two pieces of advice. One, let others know this is what makes you feel loved; two, show appreciation in this way to others. What’s great about this particular love language is that it doesn’t have to be given or received in person. If you don’t live with or see your loved ones on a regular basis, they can still lavish you with words of affirmation virtually, whether that’s via text or on the phone. But Derickson maintains that the key again is voicing to them that this is your love language so that they know to do it.
2. Quality time
You may be around your partner 24/7 right now, but Catherine Richardson, LPC says this doesn’t mean the time you’re spending together is quality. “Quality time means being intentional about what you are doing during that time,” she says. “Instead of doing your normal routine in the evening, try having a date night at home complete with candles—a fancy meal you don’t normally have. You can order in or you can use a meal prep service for some new ideas.” Richardson says you could even make it a meal that has significance to you, such as the same meal you had on your first date.
If you’re craving quality time with someone who you don’t live with, Richardson says planning video dates can also feel really special. It shows that you and your friend have both set aside this time just for the other person, which will automatically feel more special than texting each other during the work day or while watching Netflix.
3. Receiving gifts
Bisma Anwar, LMHC says the reason why receiving gifts can strengthen social connection is because it shows that someone was thinking of you. “It’s the application of intention, the visual of affection beyond words,” she says. Communicating to your loved ones that it’s the intention more than the actual gift that you appreciate most will put their mind at ease; otherwise they may feel they have to spend a lot of money in order to make you happy—definitely something to be mindful of now more than ever. “At the end of the day, it’s really the thought that counts,” Anwar says, saying just sending a card can be a sweet way to show this love language.
4. Acts of service
“Doing an act of service for someone while physically distancing from them can seem like a tricky thing for sure,” says Ashley Ertel LCSW. One of her favorite examples of what this love language can look like during the pandemic is ordering someone takeout through Grubhub or from their favorite restaurant so they don’t have to worry about getting a meal on the table that night.
“Other examples I have experienced are a neighbor making cloth face coverings for [others], picking up groceries for someone who is unable to visit the store, and doing a post office drop for someone who is stuck inside,” Ertel says. As with the other love languages, the more you put it into practice, the more you can expect others to do the same for you. “Small acts of kindness go such a long way in building connection to our friends and family,” Ertel says. “Everyone wants to feel cared for.”
5. Physical touch
Except for the loved ones you live with (if you do, in fact, live with them), this love language is a tricky one to give and receive right now. But Meaghan Rice, Psy.D says it’s certainly not impossible. “There’s ways to work around this need when necessary such as using Facetime, Zoom, or Skype,” she says. If you’re talking with a romantic partner you would otherwise be intimate with, she says you can tell them verbally the ways in which we would touch each other, going through all five senses if possible.
If it’s other loved ones whose physical touch you miss, engage what senses you can instead: Bake the dessert you love making with your mom. Wear your dad’s faded worn shirt that just might still smell like him. Spritz the perfume your best friend loves to wear on your wrists. It’s not physical touch, but it’s the next best thing.
As you can see from these tips, connecting during the pandemic is possible; it must might take a little more creativity. But put in the effort and you’re guaranteed to feel better. Hey, science says so.
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