#childrensmhw | Human Connection, Loneliness and Anxiety

When I was diagnosed with anxiety it was with relief that I finally understood that I wasn’t going crazy, that my world wasn’t falling apart, and that when I asked for it, I would receive the help that I needed. I did receive help, in the form of anti-depressants, a little white tablet that I would have to take every single day. This tablet, whilst helping to keep my anxiety under control so that I could at least function as normally as I could, felt like a chain around my neck. Yes, it was helping, but at the same time it was masking the real problem (I say this from the point of view of my own experience; please do not stop taking any medication prescribed by your doctor).

My anxiety really asserted itself when I was starting my PhD. The pressure I felt, and the doubt over the direction in which my PhD was going, made my stress levels skyrocket. This was just the start. I walked away from my PhD, but the anxiety only got worse - I was self-employed, struggling to start my business, always worried about money, and instead of working effectively and with mindfulness, I was pushing myself, and others, in a blind panic. This panic was driven by a feeling of lack, a lack of financial stability, a lack of surety, a lack of human connection that would keep me grounded. I didn't blame anyone else for what I was feeling at that time; I did recognise, even then, that to pull myself out of anxiety, and off the anti-depressants, I would have to address where these feelings were based, and make changes that would give me back control. One of the biggest changes I made was with my relationships. I started to be more honest with myself and those around me, I created solid boundaries, and I forced (yes, forced) myself to talk to strangers at networking events, yoga class, etc.

Today I am going to share with you the power of human connection and how good relationships lead to great mental health.

There have been studies that show the detrimental impact that poor social connection can have on the mind and body, on the immune system, and on depression and anxiety. Loneliness is the biggest descriptor of poor social connections, and in recent years it has been shown that loneliness is on the rise; it particularly impacts the elderly, but can also be a problem for younger people. With this problem growing in the UK, we have to ask the question: What has gone wrong in our world, that even as we become more socially connected through social media, we are actually becoming more isolated in our day-to-day direct human connections. We need to become mindful of our ability to overcome our own loneliness, and hence poor social connection, and the negative health effects that can come from these conditions. It can be hard, I know… I really do…

I used to be shy, and whereas I am not shy anymore. I am, however, an introvert (or lean more towards introvert on the introversion/extroversion scale - of which there are many, including MyersBriggs scale), so for me things like ‘small talk’ are agonising, and the idea of networking for hours on end is my idea of torture. Bringing myself out of my anxiety, however, meant overcoming these natural personality tendencies, to “put myself out there” more. I recognised that I still needed my down time, but I had to manage my social time better, and ensure that I was building good relationships with people and a good social network. I attended more networking events and conferences, I made myself go to yoga class (with multiple benefits in helping my anxiety - not just the social connection), and ensured that I was getting quality time with the friends that I already had. A year after I started building better social connections I came off my anti-depressants. I achieved my goal to self-manage my anxiety. I have built a fabulous social network, and I haven’t looked back.

So what can you do to help combat loneliness and build better social relationships?

Firstly, if you are really struggling with loneliness, please don’t hesitate to call a helpline, such as the Samaritans or The Mix. If you are feeling just a little isolated - perhaps exams or work have been taking up a lot of your time, or you have felt anxiety about socializing - call up a friend or family member you trust and explain to them how you are feeling. I have no doubt that they will immediately come over for a tea and biscuit, or take you for a walk in the park, and ultimately help you create more connections. Think about your interests; is there a sport you like to play, or a craft you like to do? If so consider joining a group of likeminded people, or even just contact a person in the group and ask them for a chat about what they do and how you could get involved. My experience with anxiety taught me that we have to take control of our situation, and even if it means pushing ourselves to our limits, we can turn our situations around, by asking for help, exploring beyond our circle, and being mindful of our feelings at all times.

It's Children's Mental Health Week (#childrensmhw). Please join our campaign to improve mental health provision in UK schools.

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Elizabeth Wright

ELIZABETH WRIGHT | TRIPLE PARALYMPIC MEDALLIST | GOAL JOURNEY COACH | AUTHOR | Since moving to the UK from Australia and starting her speaking business in response to the amazing success that was the 2012 Paralympic Games in London, Elizabeth has spoken in primary and secondary schools all over the UK. Elizabeth addresses such issues as disability, the Paralympics, goal setting, and goal achievement. Elizabeth’s story intrigues and inspires across generations, with her ability to cross between primary schools, secondary schools and corporate/business, illustrating her adaptability and passion for speaking. Elizabeth is a professional speaker who believes in the power of stories to inspire and motivate those who hear her speak.