Meaningful connections are essential for mental health. Here’s how to build them

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Meaningful connections are essential for mental health. Here’s how to build them

By Gregory Scott Brown

Feeling disconnected can be detrimental to mental health, but having connections – whether to other people, interests and work – may not be enough. Many of us can say that we have close relationships with family members and friends, and are connected, often overly, to work, social media and interests, but the quality of those connections may not make us feel fulfilled.

Not all meaningful connections involve being with people.

Not all meaningful connections involve being with people.Credit: iStock

Disconnection has been linked to loneliness and mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression. Some patients may need to be evaluated by health-care professionals and could be helped by therapy and medication.

Others may be able to make changes such as forming meaningful connections, which can lessen the disconnected feeling, help alleviate loneliness, reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, and protect our physical and emotional health.

As a psychiatrist who treats depression and has experienced it, I understand the negative effects of disconnection. Many of my patients talk about it. One of them, a working mother in her late 40s, said that she felt disconnected despite being surrounded by people. She said it seemed that she was watching every day pass by, like an outside observer, and described her life as mundane and purposeless.

“I feel disconnected from myself,” she said.

In my 20s, I felt similarly disconnected and alone after a difficult breakup and being unclear about my career path.

Meaningful connections helped me get past my depression, and they have helped my patients, too. A meaningful connection is one that fosters a sense of belonging and purpose, and it can help us feel less disconnected and alone.

There are several ways to create these connections, and not all involve being with people.

Connect to your inner self


Develop a connection with your inner self. This can free you from seeking or maintaining connections with other people, things and activities that may not feel nourishing.

These are some ways my patients connect with themselves:

  • Set aside time at the beginning or the end of the day to be alone
  • Do a walking meditation during a lunch break
  • Turn off music on the commute to and from work to be more present
  • Practice mindfulness
  • Journal

Connecting with your inner self also can help you identify meaningful connections. Think about the times you felt most alive and excited about life or open to possibilities. Ask yourself – what was I doing at those times, and who was I with? Or you can tune in to your inner self’s guidance by asking – what motivates me, inspires me and allows me to feel peaceful and fulfilled?

Those answers will point you towards what feels most authentic to you. For some of my patients, it is time spent playing with their children; for others, it is being absorbed in a sport or artistic activity, and for others still, it is taking a walk alone in nature.

Connect with others

Some of my patients have families and friends but lack a deep connection with many of them. I encourage them to assess these relationships and focus on the ones that have the potential for depth and understanding.

Know, too, that others in your life also may be feeling disconnected and that by spending time with them you can alleviate some of their concerns.

It can be tough to make new connections, especially as we grow older or are new to a place or are in a transition stage of our lives such as going through a divorce or graduating. Common interest meetups, group therapy and religious organisations are some places to find and form meaningful connections.

It can take a while to find new people with whom you click. Try to be kind to yourself and be patient.

Explore forms of spirituality to find ways to connect

A study has found connection to be a unique characteristic of spirituality, and one of my favourite questions to ask my patients is, “What does spirituality mean to you?” About half of them say, “I’m not religious, but I think it’s important for my mental health.”

Thousands of conversations with my patients have taught me that spirituality is not limited to religion. It is a connection to the inner self or external environment, or, if a person happens to be religious, to a higher power. One patient said prayer helped quiet anxious ruminations associated with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Some studies have shown that functional abnormalities in an area of the brain called the default mode network have been associated with mental illnesses such as depression. Research has shown that people who engage in spiritual practices such as meditation, mindfulness or prayer can potentially normalise activity in the default mode network.

Some of my patients also describe altruism or selfless service – volunteering or doing something kind for someone – as a form of spirituality that allows them to feel a sense of connection and purpose.

Deepen connections by creating boundaries


Once you have identified connections that hold meaning for you, take the time to deepen them by creating boundaries around anything that distracts from those intentions. Maybe you’re working overtime to provide a comfortable life for your children. Or you’re volunteering for extra projects or people-pleasing in ways that harm your self-care. Rethink some of those commitments, so you can put some of that energy and emotion into what you cherish.

Some other examples of boundary-setting include taking an occasional mental health day, scheduling time for self-care practices such as yoga or reading a book, asking for help if you are feeling overwhelmed, and saying “no” when you need to.

Sometimes setting boundaries can make you feel guilty because you feel like you aren’t as available. Boundary-setting, however, allows you to connect meaningfully with the people and things that are most important for you.

In some ways, we are more connected than ever, yet many people still feel disconnected. Finding meaningful connection can help you find or regain your purpose and peace.

Gregory Scott Brown is a psychiatrist, mental health writer and the author of The Self-Healing Mind: An Essential Five-Step Practice for Overcoming Anxiety and Depression, and Revitalising Your Life.

Washington Post

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