Reconnection: How to establish and maintain social connections through the pandemic and beyond

Humans are social by nature. Connection is crucial to our overall well-being. We examine how to build connection through the pandemic.

Young woman in park with dog | Photo by Sam Manns on Unsplash

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Humans are social by nature. Connection is crucial to our overall well-being. Usually, when we think of the connections in our life, the first thing that pops into our minds are the faces of the people we are closest to: friends and family. However, there are other sources and types of connection that can be very helpful and rewarding for us.

Some examples are:

  • Professional connections — many of us spend more time in the workplace with our coworkers than even our own families.
  • Recreational — joining formal or informal groups based on hobbies such as sports, art, music, crafts, etc. Groups form around even the most obscure interests.
  • Community — such as volunteering, church groups, neighbourhood associations or support groups.
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Connection to self
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Connection to self

However, we often forget the most important form of connection is with oneself. Sometimes, especially if we’re busy or stressed, we might feel completely disconnected from ourselves.

Fortunately, there are different pathways to strengthen self-connection — emotionally, physically, intellectually. For some, solitude is a space to practice their passions, such as music, painting, cooking, gardening, exercising or hiking in nature. For others, practicing mindfulness, meditating, doing yoga, reading or journaling does the trick to reconnect with themselves.

What all these forms of connections have in common is giving us a sense of acceptance, belonging, meaning, worthiness and wholeness.

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What are your social resources?
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What are your social resources?

When you want to build up your social connections, a great place to start is to think of the social resources available to you:

  • friends, friends of friends or friends of family members
  • a co-worker you might like to hang out with after work
  • activities offered in your local community centre
  • a social issue you’re passionate about that you could get involved with through volunteering
  • a language you always wanted to learn.

These are all examples of resources that may help you expand your social connections. Intersect your social capital resources with your preferences. What's your cup of tea?

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Boredom, loneliness, stress and social anxiety
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Boredom, loneliness, stress and social anxiety

Substance use can often be used as a coping mechanism for loneliness and boredom.

Disconnection from our friends and family, sports or art groups, community groups, co-workers or our passions can often lead to feelings of boredom, loneliness, stress and/or social anxiety. In general we strive for social connection, so isolation can feel like the harshest punishment. Substance use is a momentary escape that can alleviate the symptoms of isolation but over time can increase isolation.

Initially the ‘dulling’ of feelings can be a relief but the more frequently we use substances the less effective they feel. Repetitive use can lead to an increased tolerance, leads us to use more of the substance more frequently to achieve the same effect. This means more time engaging with the addiction than engaging with people, more time losing connections than making connections.

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COVID-19 and involuntary disconnection
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COVID-19 and involuntary disconnection

Especially in states experiencing an extended lockdown, COVID restrictions mean we’re experiencing an involuntary disconnection from our friends and family, social groups, co-workers and the social activities that hold us together. For some people, such disconnection has fuelled the use of alcohol and/or other drugs. According to the Victorian Alcohol and Drug Association (VAADA), throughout the pandemic Victorian treatment agencies have been reporting more frequent and more severe alcohol-related presentations. Although nationally we saw a decrease in harmful/binge drinking we saw a huge increase in home drinking which was substantially higher in females.

Lockdown restrictions exacerbate the sense of losing control of your life. Many people attempt to regain that sense of control by turning to alcohol and other drugs — they feel they might not be in control of the pandemic, but at least they’re in control of something. VAADA observes that home delivery of alcohol and take away liquor outlets have contributed to increasing demand for treatment services, particularly among people who have not previously engaged in treatment.

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Social resources in lockdown
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Social resources in lockdown

Some of your social resources might not be available to you in lockdown, but it’s important to take advantage of what you do have. Now is a great time to invest in your connection with yourself.

Have you considered getting a pet? Have you gotten yourself into an exercise routine? Even if you don’t own a dog or are unable to have one in your home, you can make it a daily mission to go to the park and pet dogs. This will ensure you get some physical activity, connect with yourself by walking, connect with nature, and maybe even make some new friends from your neighbourhood.

You can also make an effort to stay more connected with your friends and family, even if you’re far apart. You don’t have to do anything big — start small, like agreeing to send each other a photo of something interesting you encounter on a walk every day.

Boredom and loneliness are intrinsically linked, so you could also consider learning a new skill. Throughout the pandemic, lots of services have popped up online to help people learn virtually. Class Bento even provides virtual classes with craft kits delivered to your home with everything you need. If you’ve ever wanted to learn a skill, investigate whether you can take a virtual class to learn at home.

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Social connections fight stigma
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Social connections fight stigma

We know shame, guilt and stigma are barriers to approaching close friends and family or even accessing treatment services. We also know telling another person reduces the feelings of shame, guilt and stigma. Sharing the issue can normalise something which other people are also experiencing. Sharing the issue with the right person lets you know you are not alone and reduces the sense of being judged and marginalised.

Consider your social resources. You might not feel ready to tell a family member or friend, but there are other people out there ready to lend an ear. There are anonymous services such as helplines, peer support and online chat. Perhaps you might like to try out a support group such as those run by SMART Recovery, which are held both in person and online.

One benefit of opening up to other people is the establishment of a support network. The more you build up your support network, the more social capital resources to strengthen your social connections from. Another benefit is helping to stay focused on maintaining recovery. One way it will help is serving as a means of accountability not only towards the people you confide in but also yourself.

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Recovery resources
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Recovery resources

If you’re trying to change your drug and alcohol use, research shows that strengthening social networks can be key to maintaining recovery long-term. The members of our peer support forums recently discussed how to make new friends.

Check out the thread for some ideas. Here are a few we liked:

  • Check out the activities offered in your community centre, such as yoga or dance classes. Practice a sport by joining a footy derby or soccer team.
  • Indulge your artistic side by practicing diamond painting, doing creative writing or learning a new craft.
  • Volunteer for a cause, whether it’s campaigning for environmental issues or helping out the residents of an aged care facility in your area.
  • Consider joining your kid’s school parents groups or use groups on social media to make friends in your suburb — many suburbs have a Good Karma Network on Facebook where neighbours help each other and share resources. Check it out and see if there’s a good deed you can do for someone in your community.

If you’re feeling disconnected from yourself and others and need to chat about it, we’re here for you 24/7. Chat with us online.

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What can I do next?
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What can I do next?