Recall the last time you had a long, tear-filled conversation about a bad day. Think about the most recent obstacle you've had to overcome. Who rallied behind you? How did you feel when you knew you had someone to lean on? We all know that friendship plays a big role in our lives, based on our own experiences with friends who support, encourage, and stick with us. This is especially true for those who have suffered from mental health problems and were able to rely on friends through hard times. Now there's hard evidence backing up the healing powers of friendship, not just as an emotional balm but also as a documented means to combat depression.

Depression is characterized by persistent low moods, loss of interest in activities, energy loss and difficulty concentrating. With over 16% of the US population being diagnosed with depression at some point during their lifetime, chances are good that you or someone you know has suffered its debilitating effects.1

Friends Can Shield Us From the Worst

A recent study suggests that the way we perceive our relationships with our family and friends may influence how we deal with life's stressors. As part of the Grady Trauma Project, a five-year National Institute of Health (NIH) funded investigation on traumatic stress, researchers interviewed high-risk individuals and examined how perceptions of social support can mediate the trauma of childhood abuse. The participants interviewed were part of a larger study at a public hospital serving the low-income and homeless in Atlanta, GA. With a demographic of 54% female and primarily African-American, about 70% reported a monthly income of less than $1,000. The result of the research was that for females with a history of childhood abuse and neglect, the perception of social support alone reduced the risk of adult-onset depressive symptoms.2

What this research suggests is pretty remarkable: that simply the idea of having people to lean on can act as a protective layer, shielding us from the worst effects of depression and anxiety. It's a new twist on "mind over matter"; if you feel loved and supported, then according to the state of your mental health, you are! And this mentality results in a better outlook when navigating negative experiences.

Relying on Friends Can Make Us More Resilient

Actively relying on friends to talk through problems has also been shown to make a person better at overcoming hardship. A study on resiliency and coping strategies suggests that task-oriented coping, such as goal management, is positively correlated with increased resiliency: the ability to overcome hardships life throws at us. What does this have to do with friendship? Resiliency was also correlated with extraversion and the ability to build strong, positive, relationships.3 This means that social support from others can actually make us more self-sufficient, resilient, and ultimately, better at protecting ourselves against anxiety.

The Best Way to Cope: Talk It Out

People respond to painful or stressful events in their own way. How one chooses to react to negative events can shape one's overall sense of well-being in the moment and later on. These reactions are divided into two coping styles: passive and active.

  • Passive Coping: characterized by avoidant behavior, a sense of relying on external sources to resolve the problem. Think: curling up alone and distracting yourself with three straight seasons of Friends on Netflix
  • Active Coping: tackling a problem head-on and seeking help when you need it. Think: opening up to a friend and soliciting support about a particular hardship.

Active coping is associated with greater resiliency in response to stressful life events because good friends don't enable passive coping by "shutting down." Instead, they encourage active coping through "talking it out" and suggesting ways to view problems in a more positive light.

Lean on Your Friends or Find Social Support

The positive effects of social support are also demonstrated in group therapy and support groups (both in-person and online), which promote social support as an element of the healing process. Anyone who has experienced depression, or watched a loved one suffer through it, knows it can be isolating. For individuals with a history of trauma, relying on close personal relationships for support can have a big impact on their ability to heal.

Whether a person has an intimate circle of friends or would like to build that circle of social support, surrounding oneself with people one can trust to be supportive, empathic listeners can provide a safety net for tough times. Social support can come in many different forms such as online support groups, religious gatherings, military and veteran peer groups, neighborhood potlucks, book clubs, etc. This research serves to remind us that something as simple as picking up the phone to call a friend or meeting up at a local coffee shop can have a positive impact that extends beyond the interaction.

Date of original publication:
Updated on: September 20, 2016

Sources

1 - WHO. The global burden of disease: 2004 update.

2 - Powers, A., Ressler, K. J., & Bradley, R. G. (2009). The protective role of friendship on the effects of childhood abuse and depression. Depression and anxiety, 26(1), 46-53.

3 - Campbell Sills, L., Cohan, S. L., & Stein, M. B. (2006). Relationship of resilience to personality, coping, and psychiatric symptoms in young adults. Behaviour research and therapy, 44(4), 585-599.

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