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Making and keeping friends during a pandemic

It's important to stay connected to the world outside.

We're celebrating 'Make A Friend Day 2021' with a timely reminder of what's important.

We have all experienced isolation lately due to repeated lockdowns and restrictions on meeting people outside our immediate circle, but it’s during challenging times like these that we most need the boost that friendship can bring to our lives. It has long been believed that loneliness is one of the biggest factors in safeguarding your mental health. In 2016 Robin Dunbar, professor of experimental psychology at Oxford University was quoted as saying "The most important thing that will prevent you dying is the size of your social network." But how can we continue to benefit from friendships when we are stuck at home and fed up of seeing everyone through a screen?

There are times in life when it's difficult to make friends – or even find time for those friends we do have. This is particularly true during periods of great change, like that we have all experienced during the lockdowns associated with Covid 19. Even if you know your social network is shrinking, you feel powerless to do anything about it, especially if your day-to-day life has changed significantly to include home schooling, shift work or working full time from home. It can even feel easier to avoid friends if you’re exhausted – but it’s exactly times like these when you need your friends the most. And there are still ways of making new friendships even when our social lives have changed so drastically.

It’s OK of course to retreat temporarily if life is just too busy to contemplate social interactions. We all have periods when our friendships suffer, but if we're aware of what's happening we can take steps to make sure we aren’t isolated for too long. And we really should – because many scientists, medics and psychologists now believe that a strong social network is good for our health. Studies have shown that social isolation can be more life-threatening than obesity, and it's as bad for us as smoking. Research also shows that lonely individuals develop a metabolism that makes them liable to inflammation, which can contribute to heart disease, dementia and some cancers. So, what better time than now to ask: how many real friends do I have? Do I have enough? And are they the sort of people who make me feel happy and energised?

It’s a good idea every few years to undertake a friendship review – a private exercise designed to help you identify the friends in your life who lift you up and raise your spirits, as well as those who drain your mood and your energy. As the years pass, we all change, develop and grow – and so do our friends. This can mean that someone who was once the ideal mate may no longer offer the right sort of company and companionship you need now.

Make a list of all of your friends, everyone you can think of from social media contacts to best friends from school, work colleagues to people you know through your family. Then ask yourseIf this simple question: does this person make me feel better when I am with them? Do I anticipate hearing from them with relish, or do I ever try and avoid their company? Rate each friend on a scale as though you're reviewing a film or a hotel. Then ask yourself if you're seeing enough of the people with the top ratings. At the moment with social distancing in place it’s a little tricky, of course, but that means this is a good time to review objectively who you are missing the most and who you might decide not to engage with when restrictions are lifted. For your own good you need to limit contact with negative people in order to free up space for other friends who energise and enthuse you.

How to make new friends
The first thing to remember when deciding to make new friends is that you have to be proactive – they won’t come to you if you don’t seek them out. There's no doubt that the best way to make new friends is through an activity that you love. At the moment of course there are huge limitations on being able to enjoy hobbies such as dance classes or amateur dramatics, but these times will pass and if in the meantime you can make contact with an existing group or association you will find it easier to get involved when they start meeting face-to-face again. Try searching for your favourite activities on Facebook – and join groups that practice them in your area. If you can’t find anything, consider starting a group yourself – it can start as an online group and then develop into a real world opportunity at a later date. If you start a book group now and meet like-minded people while you are all stuck at home, imagine how enjoyable it will be to meet in a bar or café when you can in a few weeks’ time.

Be aware of your body language when around people you’re meeting for the first time – you may be sub-consciously drawing away from people, crossing your arms or standing on the edge of a group. Try and bust through that comfort zone and approach people with a big smile and a relaxed attitude – you will be perceived as someone who is worth getting to know and easy to communicate with.

One way to get involved at the moment while adhering to current situations is to volunteer. The team at Boxcitement have all become involved in our local vaccination centre, taking shifts as volunteers to greet and help people arriving for their jabs. Through this we have met many other people with a similar desire to do something positive, and the mood-enhancing feeling of helping others can’t be overstated. It feels great! Try contacting your local GP surgery or again search on Facebook for a group actively involved in volunteering.

One thing to remember is that new friendships can take a while to develop, so don't expect to feel as comfortable with someone you've just met as you do with old friends. A new chum could be the perfect person with whom to have a coffee, or walk round an exhibition, but may not necessarily be someone you want to reveal your deepest secrets to. And that's not a problem – there's no harm in having different friends for different activities. Try to manage your expectations and take things slowly – and hopefully over time you will develop meaningful relationships which are better than those you said goodbye to when you competed your friendship review.

It’s important to also appreciate that friends we interact with on social media are no substitute for meeting up in the real world. Even during lockdown we are able to meet with one other person – grabbing a coffee and walking through the park is far more restorative than scrolling through Facebook or Twitter. Various psychologists believe that if we restrict our social contact to the internet, we reduce levels of bonding hormones which are only activated when we meet friends face-to-face and that help to keep us healthy. It’s OK to acknowledge that it’s easier to keep in touch with people this way at the moment as long as you also aim for more personal interactions. Try sending individual text messages to friends instead of group messages – and make sure you stay in most contact with those people who make you feel good.

It certainly takes energy and time and effort to make friends and to maintain our friendships, especially when we are restricted to the levels we currently are. But remember, it won’t be long before we can come out of lockdown and start to socialise again – and if in the meantime you have reviewed your friendships and improved your social contacts, it will be worth it – not just for the enjoyment it brings but for the health benefits too.

I hope you stay well and safe and manage to keep in touch with everyone who's important to you - and as always I would love to hear your own suggestions!

Best wishes for now – Deb

(P.S. I'd love to know what you are doing to keep your friendships alive - leave your comment below!)

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