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Building A Social Support Network 101

So far, this chapter has illustrated the importance of connecting to others and how doing so will protect you from the surging stress hormones that can take a physical toll on your body. But opening yourself to others is not only defensive; it can be good for your health, too.

One study demonstrated that close support among women makes them less apt to overeat, more likely to eat well, and less likely to turn to substance abuse, and it stimulates them to exercise. Emphasizing the link between connectedness and resilience, another study showed that patients with larger social networks demonstrated lower perceptions of pain after surgery, used less pain medication, and experienced less post-operative anxiety, particularly in the first five days following surgery.

But perhaps more important, opening yourself to others will also add new meaning to your life--on many levels. First, having a network of friends can increase your sense of self-worth. Having friends means that others value you--your ideas, your sense of humor, your lasagna Bolognese. They enjoy something about you and the things you do together. Why else would they be your friends? Second, connect g with a group, or even a single friend, provides a sense of belonging and helps ward off loneliness.

If you stop at the local deli in Quechee, Vermont, on just about any morning, you'll see a group of men having coffee together. They call themselves the ROMEOs, which stands for Retired Old Men Eating Out. These not-so-young men have been known to brave roads covered with winter ice and snow and sub-zero temperatures just to spend that hour with one another. Such is the power of a social support system.

But how can you create one for yourself?

A social support system is comprised of friends, family, and peers. It's easier to build than you might think. One tried and true approach is simply to spend time with those whose company you genuinely enjoy. We're talking quality here, not necessarily quantity. People seem to get more joy from spending longer periods of time with a close friend, rather than running around amongst a bevy of buddies, according to researcher Meliksah Demir, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at Northern Arizona University.

One of the essential pleasures of close friendship, Demir found, is simple companionship--or, as he puts it, "just hanging' out" one on one. If you have a group of friends, nurture the relationships by staying in touch, being proactive (call your friend for a cup of coffee; don't wait or stand on ceremony regarding who called whom last), being a good listener, and taking time to appreciate your friends and letting them know that you do.

Some more ways to be a friend include learning to laugh at yourself, facing the world with hope, finding a confidant with whom you can share your dreams and disappointments, and being a confidant to someone else.

If your social circle is smaller than you'd like, I have two words for you: get involved. In any way you can, from being a hands-on grandparent to joining a neighborhood committee to volunteering in any one a thousand ways. If you decide to volunteer, choose a cause that's important to you. In that way, you'll meet others who share your values, which makes the connection stronger from the beginning.

Roberta Lee, M.D., author of The SuperStress Solution, is vice chair of the Department of Integrative Medicine, director of Continuing Medical Education, and co-director of the Fellowship in Integrative Medicine at Beth Israel's Continuum Center for Health and Healing at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City. Dr. Lee attended George Washington University Medical School and is one of the four graduates in the first class from the Program of Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona conducted by Andrew Weil, M.D.

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