The holidays are a time to share home-cooked meals, reconnect with far-away loved ones and contemplate what the next year has in store.
But for nearly two years, the coronavirus pandemic has affected our ability to safely get together in person. With vaccines now widely available in the U.S. for everyone ages 5 and up – and with federal health officials encouraging everyone 16 and older to get a booster – more and more families and friends are beginning to reach out.
It may seem challenging after so many months of distancing to re-establish relationships with family and friends – and even co-workers as offices reopen. But experts say it’s important for your mental and physical health.
“It’s been a while since people have been together, and they may have forgotten about the necessary give-and-take that’s a part of navigating social relationships,” Laura Kubzansky, the Lee Kum Kee professor of social and behavioral sciences at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston shares.
How does social isolation affect your heart health?
Kubzansky co-authored an American Heart Association scientific statement about the links between psychological well-being and cardiovascular health. Published in January in Circulation, it reported on a substantial body of research that found feelings of optimism, happiness and purpose were associated with better heart health and fewer adverse cardiovascular events. Conversely, social isolation and loneliness may contribute to the development of cardiovascular disease.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been labeled the “pandemic of loneliness.” Even before the lockdowns, research showed lonely people tend to be more physically sedentary and are more likely to smoke and have high blood pressure, all risk factors for cardiovascular disease.
Being socially connected might make those things less likely, Kubzansky adds. “There are a lot of different pathways that tie better social relationships to better health,” from changes in a person’s behavior to mitigating biological responses to stress, she says. “No single mechanism will explain all of the effects. There’s just something about feeling cared for that matters in all kinds of ways.”
People with better social support also tend to have better psychological health, according to the AHA report. And that social support can come in many forms, according to Anne Moyer, professor of social and health psychology at Stony Brook University in New York. Friends and family can provide emotional support when you’re going through a hard time, advice and information for handling a problem, and tangible assistance with whatever the situation might be.
“I always say that if you have someone that will help you move, you know that you have tangible support,” Moyer shares. “Simply knowing that you have people that care about you can lead to an increased sense of connection, self-esteem and control.”
Social connections can also encourage and reinforce healthy behaviors and attitudes. Friends and family can remind you to get a health screening or invite you on a walk.
So as you reconnect this holiday season, here are some tips: