Relationships and Mental Health

I am very happy to announce that today there will be a guest blog post about Relationships and Mental Health. Roger from Mind and Love was kind enough to dive into this and wrote a great piece, including aspects I would never have thought of. On his blog Roger writes about mental health related topics as well as societal issues and relationships. You can find out more about him at the end of theis post. You will also find all his social media accounts there. Give him all your support and tell us what you think in the comments. ________________________________________________________________

When Nadine from Home of Understanding suggested that I write a post about the connection between relationships and mental health, I was immediately struck by the vast possibilities.  There are so many different types of relationships; friendships, intimate relationships, and family relationships; as well as acquaintances, how we relate to strangers, and relationships with pets.  Even within those broad categories, there are numerous subcategories and shades of gray.

I was reminded of composer Igor Stravinsky’s paradoxical but apt comments that through restrictions, one can find freedom. I could either focus on one specific type of relationship; father and son, best friends, or life partners, or look at common denominators that encompass all types of relationships.  In the end, I choose the latter, focusing my attention on how relationships impact not just our mental health, but physical well being as well.   

Communication, Relationship, and Mental Health

However, discussing the connection between relationships and mental health can’t be separated from the evolution of how we communicate.  After all, to relate requires communication in some form.  Therefore, changes to our modes of communication will inevitably alter the fabric of our relationships, and thus our mental health. 

Over the previous 100 plus years, the advent of the phone and other technologies via the internet have led to fundamental changes to the way we communicate; evolving and transforming from reliance on face to face interactions to digital communications.  Ironically, while these advances have made communication more accessible, they have also contributed to greater isolation as we separate and retreat behind our individual walls and digital screens.  We become increasingly dependent on sensory deprived forms of interacting and relating; messaging from a distance rather than speaking in person.  When we increase the distance between ourselves and others, we reduce the opportunities for the physical contact necessary for our mental and physical well-being. 

Touch and Health

In the book, A General Theory of Love, the authors reveal that mammalian babies can be given all the presumed essentials to survive (food, shelter), but will suffer and eventually die if they are not provided human contact.  While we might have previously assumed that a mother’s love is essential to a person’s mental wellness, it’s also true that her embrace is fundamental to a baby’s survival; just as necessary as food and shelter.  A baby, in order to develop physically and mentally, must feel consistent contact with its parental figure; to learn and connect empathy and pleasure to physical contact. 

This connection is part of our emotional DNA; one we carry into adulthood; manifested in our desire for physical interactions. Further research reveals how we respond positively to subtle but appropriate physical contact from people we don’t even know; yielding bigger tips for waiters and waitresses; increasing the amount a person spends at a store and increasing the chances a person helps a complete stranger.  In a study from 1976, library patrons who were returned their lost library cards with a gentle form of physical contact from the library clerks reported greater connectivity to the clerk.       

Isolation Impacts our Health

When we isolate ourselves behind our fences and gates, within our homes, and become dependent on digital forms of communication, we reduce opportunities for the emotional and physical health benefits that accompany face to face interaction and physical contact.  While meaningful dialogue and relationships can certainly occur from behind our screens, we are still missing the essential sensory components that are linked to our mental wellness.

Losing Face to Face Interpersonal Skills

I have encountered some resistance on this point; particularly from younger generations; as they make the compelling argument that face to face encounters are often accompanied by anxiety and exhausting pleasantries.  While I acknowledge the validity of these feelings and reactions, perhaps we can also recognize the real possibility that part of the social anxiety stems from being asked to use an underdeveloped skill.  If, as a child, most of our interactions and communications occurred from behind a screen, we probably lacked sufficient opportunities to develop the interpersonal skills required for face to face communication.  The feelings of anxiety are perhaps born from a situation that is unfamiliar; being asked to perform a skill that is undeveloped. 

Developing Face to Face Interpersonal Skills

Our growing dependence on digital communication has become inherent to the modern internet age.  Consequently, we may be raising new generations who aren’t given opportunities to comfortably develop skills congruent with face to face interactions.  Often people will cite the ease of sending a text message; avoiding the discomfort of navigating the uncertain rhythms of spoken dialogue.  Again, the discomfort is in part born of the unfamiliar.  In addition, avoiding difficulty doesn’t necessarily equate to better emotional wellness. 

We have all experienced challenging circumstances that have led to personal growth; where hindsight gave rise to a new appreciation for a past difficulty.  While it is often easier to stay at home and engage in familiar comfort activities, emotional wellness sometimes requires stepping through the membrane of the unfamiliar and into new realms where pleasant surprises live; where discomfort can transform into security and wellness, as new habits and skills potentially replace the old.  

Testing our Preconceived Notions

When social and relating opportunities arise in the future that elicit feelings of anxiety and discomfort, perhaps it would be helpful to consider a venture beyond our comfortable habits as an experiment.  While it is certainly true that this hypothetical activity will be equal to our preconceived notions, it is also possible that testing uncharted territory will yield pleasantly surprising emotional results. 

For example, if we lack a cup of sugar for a particular recipe, perhaps the idea of visiting the neighbor we have never met would seem daunting; full of anxiety.  However, as an experiment, perhaps we decide to knock on his or her door; maybe we find our neighbor to be warm, welcoming, and thoughtful.  We return to home feeling different; we feel better with our mental health altered.  

While our consciousness tends to amplify our negative experiences; through mindfulness , we can draw our attention to these positive experiences; where the experiments yielded elevated emotions.  If we can recognize the moments where testing our comfortable social habits yielded mental health benefits, we will be more likely to experiment with the unfamiliar in the future; building new habits of communication that can reconnect us to the mental health and wellness inherent to relationships.

About the Author  

Roger is a Music Professor of Music Composition and Theory at Del Mar College.  Mind and Love is his blog; which features posts about mental health, wellness and relationships with a dash of humor.  Initially created to unveil his experiences through a midlife crisis, Mind and Love has evolved to serve as an example for his students; that they can achieve their goals while navigating through the struggles and triumphs of life; that they aren’t much different from their instructors.  In a broader sense, Mind and Love hopes to connect people by drawing attention to our common humanity; focusing on our commonalities and the shared experiences that bind us, rather than the differences that separate us. 

His blog: Mind and Love

Twitter: @mindandlove1

Facebook: Mind and Love

Pinterest: @mindandlove

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