Recently I had the chance to celebrate with some close friends as they overcame a string of challenges in their lives. This got me thinking about how I cope with stressful and difficult times in my life. There’s comfort food, of course, but sometimes the rough patch is more than a big bowl of ice cream can combat. So what to do? Turn to your friends!
A social support network can be critical to help you through the stress of tough times. Unlike a structured support group run by a mental health professional, your support network is simply the friends and family in your life you feel you can turn to when you’re struggling. These friends can help strengthen your self-worth, your sense of belonging and your general feeling of security. But don’t wait until you need help to look for this network; foster those relationships on an ongoing basis.
Many adults struggle with how to find friends, however. Especially those who re-locate for work or a relationship – without the near-automatic camaraderie of classmates we found as schoolchildren, it can be tough to build bridges to others. The Mayo Clinic suggests joining a gym, volunteering in your community or even connecting with others via online groups. All of these offer ways to find others with similar interests to yours, or who are in a similar place in their lives. Last year, I joined a local running club that not only motivated me to start exercising more regularly, but also connected me to a few dozen active and engaging locals who welcomed me warmly into their fold.
Once you have made connections, how to cultivate and maintain them? Make the effort to stay in touch; don’t wait for others to reach out to you. Send a card, make a phone call – suggest a get-together, just because. While spending time together, be sure to really listen to what your friend has to say. And avoid a common pitfall – jealousy. If things are going well for a friend, celebrate those times instead of feeling envious or resentful. Being a good friend feels good in itself, and usually means that when you need help, a good friend will be there for you.
Feeling great because you have a zillion names in your phone’s contact list? Remember that quantity is not a substitute for quality. Beware toxic relationships, and distance yourself from anyone who you find simply drains you by being overly negative, critical or downright needy. And if you find that a new friend is engaging in risky or unhealthy behaviors, listen to your gut and steer clear. A few high-quality relationships definitely win out over a large quantity of friends.
What if the tables are turned and a friend of yours needs help getting through a challenging time? You will want to provide support of course, and some types are more helpful than others. Offer help, and be specific. “I’m here if you need anything” is well-intentioned, but often the person in crisis won’t feel comfortable asking for something you didn’t explicitly offer. I remember this when my mother was going through a trying time. She didn’t always know what she needed or didn’t want to call someone up and say, “Hey, remember when you said you’d be here for me?” Try suggesting something in particular, like taking the kids for an afternoon, or bringing dinner on a specific night of the week. Your gesture may seem small –, if, for example, you end up taking out the trash or bringing a few items from the grocery store — but to a person feeling overwhelmed, such things are enormous tasks and your assistance will be greatly appreciated.
Listening may be what your friend needs most from you, so be sure to offer your ear, not unsolicited advice. If they seem not to know how to help themselves, provide resources, the name of a group or a person you know who could offer concrete assistance. A person in crisis will often find it hard to find the energy and focus to look for help themselves.
When life delivers you more than your share of hard knocks, remember to reach out to your support system; those friends and relatives care about you and will help you through the hard times! Foster your friendships while the sun shines, and when you encounter a rainy season, they will be there with umbrellas to help you through.