It’s a catch-22. Study after study shows how socializing is good for you — it can actually help mitigate pain, improve health and wellness, and help manage chronic diseases like severe depression, fibromyalgia, and more. Yet these very illnesses that can benefit from face to face communication and deepening friendships also make it difficult to socialize.
Here’s what the research says, why you need to be easy and forgiving for yourself and others living with chronic illness, and how to break through your own isolation to engage in fulfilling friendships with a meaningful social life.
Science Says Friends are Good for You
People are social creatures. But socializing doesn’t just feel good. It actually helps keep us healthy and enables us to live longer. Furthermore, personal interaction can provide our bodies and minds the energy and encouragement we need to heal and manage to live with chronic illnesses. It’s a challenge — but the benefits and enrichment potential are enormous.
“Dozens of studies have shown that people who have satisfying relationships with family, friends and their community are happier, have fewer health problems, and live longer,” the Harvard Women’s Health Watch points out.
One study of 7,000 men and women in Alameda County, Calif. that began in 1965, found that “people who were disconnected from others were roughly three times more likely to die during the nine-year study than people with strong social ties,” John Robbins explains in “Healthy at 100,” a book on health and longevity.
Most interestingly, the benefits existed regardless of health and lifestyle choices. People who regularly interacted with friends but maybe suffered from obesity or smoked tended to live longer than those who had healthy diets and exercised regularly. Naturally, those who practiced healthy lifestyles and regularly socialized lived the longest, but it was the socializing that had the biggest benefit when it came to longevity and healthy well being.
Granted, socializing itself tends to inspire healthy activities such as group exercise, but the beneficial effects are far more encompassing.
As personal health columnist Jane E. Brody writes in the New York Times:
“People who are chronically lacking in social contacts are more likely to experience elevated levels of stress and inflammation. These, in turn, can undermine the well-being of nearly every bodily system, including the brain.
“Absent of social interactions, blood flow to vital organs is likely to be reduced and immune function may be undermined. Even how genes are expressed can be adversely affected, impairing the body’s ability to turn off inflammation. Chronic inflammation has been linked to heart disease, arthritis, Type 2 diabetes and even suicide attempts.”
The Challenge of Socializing for the Chronically Ill
Yet as anyone who has a chronic illness knows so well, socializing can be difficult. All that interacting takes an incredible amount of energy — and sometimes getting out of bed can feel downright impossible.
“Chronic illness has transformed my daily life in many ways, but its impact on my social life is something I could not have predicted,” explains Aubrey Gonzalez, a freelance blogger who lives with multiple chronic illnesses. “Dealing with physical pain, rising medical costs and fatigue on a daily basis is very taxing, but engaging in my social life despite all these things is an entirely different challenge.”
Gonzalez recommends that able-bodied friends be more understanding and accommodating to friends who are less physically able. And for those with chronic illnesses, seek out friendships from those who are flexible and understanding enough to help you with your needs.
“If you are chronically ill, seek people in your life who won’t mind that you can’t eat most of the foods at their favorite restaurant, or can’t go out after 8 p.m. because you’ll collapse from exhaustion afterwards,” Gonzalez advises the chronically ill and challenged. “The real friends will be there regardless, helping you out with tasks or sending you encouragement when you’re laid up in bed with a heating pad and downing as many ibuprofen as you can. Keep looking for them.”
The Benefits of Clubs, Religious Groups, Hobby Centers
It’s not just you — it can be difficult to make friends as we get older. Though an atheist, the writer Kurt Vonnegut famously encouraged his reader to join a church because of the socialization religion could provide. A church could provide an extended family — “as essential to humans as food and shelter.” Such a sense of family is important in maintaining health and wellness. It can even help in pain and management and fight depression. For those who suffer from fibromyalgia, such social connections are crucial.
In addition to a church, you can also join a club, reading group, or knitting circle.
Making Friends While Managing Chronic Illness
First, take care of yourself. Talk to a wellness doctor about treatments that may provide relief. This could include stem cell treatments, or the O-shot particularly if you suffer from urinary stress incontinence. Radiofrequency treatments like Tempsure Envi may also provide relief. Adult stem cell therapy may provide benefits to a host of chronic ailments. Talk to your fibromyalgia doctor.
Sign up for a book club. Sit in on a knitting circle like Stich-N-Bitch. Join a meditation group. If you are inspired by religion, join the local church and engage with any group activities that interest you. If you are feeling too tired to get out every once in awhile, reach out with technology and engage with friends in whatever way is comfortable.
As humans, we are a social species. It’s good for our brains, our bodies, and our pain. Be easy on yourself, but tell a friend your struggles, your joy, your dreams. Our biggest fears are less when shared.