Stress Awareness Month has been held every April since 1992 to raise awareness of the causes and cures for our modern stress epidemic. The last two years have been the most challenging we have faced and in 2020 our services were overwhelmed by people that are struggling and seeking support. This year The Stress Management Society’s theme is Community. They have chosen this theme because lack of support can cause loneliness and isolation, which in turn lowers people’s wellbeing, impacts mental health and can lead to mental illness. Social isolation is an important risk factor for both deteriorating mental health and suicide. As we emerge from the pandemic, it’s vital that the community support experienced by many people during this challenging time continues. Although restrictions have mainly been lifted, people need support now more than ever as they adjust to a new way of living.
The pandemic has had a hugely detrimental effect on the nation’s mental health and sense of community. Disrupted social lives, the cancellation of large gatherings, travel restrictions and working from home have kept us in one place for long periods of time. However, one of the positives to emerge from this unparalleled situation has been the community spirit and support shown by so many to so many.
A community is much more than just a group of people. It’s about having a sense of belonging and connection to others and feel supported and accepted by them. Relationships are one of the most important aspects of our lives. People who are more socially connected to family, friends, or their community are happier, physically healthier and live longer, with fewer mental health problems than people who are less well connected. People in neighbourhoods with higher levels of social cohesion experience lower rates of mental health problems than those in neighbourhoods with lower cohesion, regardless of how deprived or affluent a neighbourhood is.
Conversely, a lack of community support can result in feelings of social isolation and loneliness. Feeling lonely has a negative impact on mental health, particularly when these feelings are longstanding, and research suggests that it is associated with an increased risk of depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, sleep problems and increased stress.
Socialising with others has multiple benefits for our mental health. Whether it’s a sport, hobby classes or volunteering, activities like these all give meaning and purpose to our lives and make us more confident. Having the opportunity to laugh and chat with others in social situations serves to temporarily distract us from our worries by turning our focus outwards instead of inwards. And being able to talk through problems and share our worries with others decreases our stress levels. As the saying goes, a worry shared is a worry halved, and less worry equals less stress.
Volunteering may be especially good for reducing stress because, much like socialising, it turns our focus outwards. Moreover, helping others with their problems, can help us gain a more positive perspective on our own difficulties. Plus, there are the associated benefits of working together with other like-minded people to achieve a worthwhile goal. These factors all weigh heavily on the positive side of the mental health spectrum, and so increase our mental wellbeing while uniting in us in a shared sense of purpose
Unfortunately, people in Western societies tend to have a higher incidence of poor mental health than those in developing countries. This is because developing nations have a stronger sense of community than the West, and consequently they don’t struggle with mental ill-health to the same degree.
Conversely, the defining qualities of modern Western culture are materialism and individualism. But the importance we assign to money and possessions doesn’t make us happy. Instead, it leads to dissatisfaction, depression, anxiety, isolation and alienation, and while these values predominate, our human need for autonomy and connection with others remains relatively unfulfilled.
We are all individuals, and we each have a unique set of skills, knowledge and experiences. However, we are not meant to exist in isolation or feel alone. Instead, we need to share our talents with others in a way that will bring value to our communities. This is very much a reciprocal relationship as we will benefit from opportunities to grow and develop by learning from others too. It’s a bit like a car. The engine doesn’t work without a battery, oil and fuel, any more than the battery, oil and fuel can make the car move without the engine. Each is an essential component of the whole. And it’s the same for us, we are all part of something much larger, and we need the support of our communities if we are to live a happy and fulfilled life.
As we progress through April, we’ll be looking deeper into the community by exploring the topics of trust, diversity and inclusion, and the role they play in building successful relationships which are the basis of a strong community.
Visit The Stress Management Society website for 30 Day Challenge resources.