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Turning the Tide on Anxiety: The Critical Role of Social Connections in Mental Health

The theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week is one that is undoubtedly familiar to many: anxiety. The crucial task before us is to explore the ties between anxiety and our regular social interactions and put in place active solutions that will positively impact our communities to reconnect with each other and ease this new epidemic of anxiety.

 In a world that is becoming increasingly more reliant on digital interaction, remote working and even being able to order your dinner without having to move from the sofa, it is no surprise that more people are experiencing negative emotions as a result of feeling disconnected from each other.

Let’s dive into some figures. According to Opinium polling* carried out for the Mental Health Foundation, who run Mental Health Awareness Week, a startling 73% of the UK population had felt anxious at least sometimes in the previous two weeks, with 21% anxious most or all of the time. These levels of anxiety were highest amongst 18–34-year-olds, single parents, carers, people identifying as LGBTQ+, and those from Black and Minority Ethnic communities.

What is Anxiety?

Anxiety is a common emotional state that makes us feel uneasy, worried or fearful, with a sliding scale of intensity that can range from mild to severe. In fact, most people feel anxious from time to time, and through a more positive lens, it can provide a boost of motivation or even protect us from something potentially harmful.

However, when these feelings of anxiety become excessive and heightened, they can interfere with daily life, leading to a mental health problem that needs more support. Interestingly, in the poll, for those who had felt anxious in the previous two weeks, more than a third (34%) stated it had interfered with their day-to-day life to a great or moderate extent. 

Anxiety is part of a wider concern around poor mental health, which can come about as a result of social, environmental and economic conditions, as well as issues surrounding physical health. Notably prevalence of depression, anxiety, stress and loneliness have not yet returned to levels pre-pandemic.

For instance, in Scotland, average levels of mental wellbeing were lower in 2021 than in 2019, and according to data from the Office of National Statistics (ONS), moderate or severe depressive symptoms among adults in Great Britain rose from 10% in July 2019 and March 2020, to 21% by January to March 2021, stabilising at 16% by September to October 2022.

The Importance of Social Connection

There is strong evidence which highlights how social connection supports our mental health, while social isolation can put our mental health at risk. In Mental Health Foundation’s polling, of those who reported feeling anxious in the previous two weeks, 23% said they had been anxious about loneliness. 

Social isolation can lead to challenges in initiating social interactions with others, often leading to feelings of rejection and insecurity. Similarly, loneliness can lead to negative self-perception and feelings of inadequacy, which can exacerbate anxiety.1 

Approximately 4 million people in England reported high loneliness scores in the most recent Community Life Survey. These high levels of perceived isolation, or inadequate meaningful connections, are related to lower perceived access to a support network and the lack of community spaces, which have a large impact on the development of social networks, especially in rural and deprived areas.

The Impact of Anxiety and Loneliness

While anyone can of course experience loneliness, there are certain risk factors that can increase our chances of severe and lasting loneliness, impacting our mental health and sometimes heightening our levels of anxiety; 

These include: 

The vicious circle that anxiety creates can lead to people avoiding social situations perceived as threatening or uncomfortable, which then increases isolation and decreases social interaction. Anxiety can also impair an individual’s ability to communicate effectively in social situations, resulting in feelings of discomfort, self-consciousness, and embarrassment, which can further exacerbate social anxiety. This may combine with a negative self-image, which can damage self-confidence and self-esteem in social situations. All of this can lead to reduced social support, as people become less likely to reach out to others for help or support. 

Anxiety can also interfere with effective communication, causing misunderstandings and disagreements with partners, family members, or friends. It can make it challenging for those suffering to express themselves clearly or make it difficult to listen to and understand other people. Anxiety can even lead to trust issues, leading to doubt and suspicion of partners, friends, or family members. 

An individual suffering from anxiety may try to avoid conflict, leading to pent-up frustrations and ultimately a more significantly damaged relationship. Conversely, however, anxiety can also lead to higher levels of conflict in relationships as it can make people more defensive or reactive.

Changing an Anxious World into a Safer Space

For those experiencing anxiety, the perception that ‘most people’ will have a negative attitude towards their condition reduces the chance they will seek support, both formally (e.g. from GPs or counselling) and informally (e.g. from family and friends). This was highlighted in our polling, where we discovered that nearly half of those experiencing anxiety (45%) kept their anxiety secret. 

Importantly, relationships can also be protective of mental health. In the polling, 26% of respondents with anxiety said that they connected with friends or family to help them cope. Overwhelmingly, respondents who had sought this support said that it had made a difference in how they felt. 

Participation in local community activities, such as volunteering, is a fantastic way to promote healthy relationships and social connections. We’ve seen this from events such as The Big Help Out, which had an impressive 80% of participants stating that they met someone from a different background, and, for 67% of them, The Big Help Out made it easier for them to meet and connect with new people. 

How do we make sure that more people have the social connections that protect them from unhealthy anxiety?  Well, we need to invest in community spaces and organisations that support people to connect. 

The facts and figures above highlight the need to rebuild social connections. A stronger sense of togetherness is an essential priority in the shared goal of healthier, safer, and more prosperous communities. Numerous scientific studies support the positive impact of prioritising a community sense of belonging, and closer and healthy relationships among our neighbours, and others in our community. By doing so, social connection creates a virtuous cycle between higher levels of connectedness, more trusting and cooperative relationships, greater levels of empathy for others and higher self-esteem. 

It is so important to create safe spaces where people can openly discuss their anxiety and seek support and guidance. Over three million people live in places where community spaces are inaccessible, whereas, for a huge percentage of the rest, these spaces are restricted by cost or limited availability. We believe that UK and devolved governments CAN support community social networks, resources, and resilience. 

We believe that governments should work together with providers of social spaces to make sure that everyone in the UK has access to a freely available public space to meet safely with others.

Despite what we’ve explored and the alarming statistics surrounding anxiety that we have shared in this article, we can absolutely still make significant steps to ease anxiety for those suffering and work to rebuild connected communities that are engaged and more fulfilled. It can be as easy as talking to our neighbours, going to community spaces, introducing ourselves to newcomers, sitting down with people with different points of view and from different backgrounds and celebrating what we have in common. 

It’s time to strengthen our sense of belonging and thus reduce the anguish of those experiencing anxiety, loneliness and depression. This is our united call for us all to take action and put in place initiatives that will move us towards a more connected society. Now, doesn’t that sound like a step in the right direction?

For more information about anxiety and how to get support, visit mentalhealth.org.uk or connect on socials:

 Twitter: @mentalhealth and @MHFScot
Facebook: @mentalhealthfoundation
Instagram: @mentalhealthfoundation
LinkedIn: @mental-health-foundation

 

***About /together:

We are a coalition that everyone is invited to join, from individuals and community groups to the UK’s best-known businesses and organisations. Our aim in Together is to build kinder, closer and more connected communities by bringing people together and bridging divides. 

Discover more at /together.org.uk

 

*Polling of 6000 UK adults aged 18+ was carried out by Opinium between 24 March and 3 April 2023.  Figures are weighted to be nationally representative. 

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