As you gather with family and friends around the Thanksgiving table, there’s one thing you might be especially grateful for: the loving relationships that provide an essential source of support and guidance and contribute to a happy and rewarding life.

“The bonds with close friends and family help provide a home base from which individuals can go out into the world with confidence and return to a caring environment.” says Joel Pava, PhD, director of psychotherapy services in the Depression Clinical and Research Program at Massachusetts General Hospital. “Although social relationships are complex and may sometimes involve negative interactions, in general, research suggests that people who enjoy a lot of social support are better able to deal with mental and physical challenges.”

Optimizing Relationships

Getting together with family and friends provides an opportunity for a wide range of possible rewards, especially if you take steps to ensure that your get-togethers with others are generally positive, Dr. Pava says. During the sometimes-stressful holiday season, he recommends using simple strategies to make the most of your time with loved ones. Here are some ideas:

  • Have Fun
    Choose activities you can all share and enjoy together.
  • Have Realistic Expectations
    Count your blessings and focus on positive experiences.
  • Model Good Behavior
    Reach out to others, get involved and be there for them. Helping others builds self-esteem, and increases feelings of mutual support.
  • Share Your Feelings
    Asking for advice and discussing issues that trouble you with your loved ones can help you process your emotions, lower your stress levels and give others a chance to offer their support and reassurance.
  • Accept Others as They Are
    Don’t be judgmental. Remember that learning about other points of view can broaden your perspective. Be patient with others’ foibles.
  • Expect Changes
    Nothing remains the same over time. Instead of resisting or becoming upset with changes in attitudes, relationships and behaviors among your loved ones, make an effort to understand and accept them.
  • Foster Intergenerational Communication
    Seize the opportunity to get to know people of different ages and statuses. Try to ensure that all age groups are included in the gathering and that they feel welcome and valued.

Count the Benefits

The benefits of supportive relationships are many and varied. Research published online in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health found that individuals who had greater levels of social support enjoyed better mental health and that negative social relationships were associated with poorer physical health.

The study adds to evidence from previous research that spending time with a network of caring friends and relatives can result in better psychological health and mental functioning. The reduction of potentially harmful levels of chronic stress and the stimulation associated with meaningful social interaction are strongly linked with greater resilience, reduced risk for anxiety and depression and a lower likelihood of cognitive decline.

Better physical health, too, is more likely in people with strong social attachments. Among the many health benefits of supportive relationships identified by researchers are:

  • Greater Health Awareness
    According to research published in SAGE Open, people with larger social networks tended to be more realistic in their assessment of their own physical condition. The findings suggest that friends and family may provide necessary observations and feedback about a loved one’s health that leads the individual to recognize health problems and to seek and follow medical advice.

  • Lower Blood Pressure
    A study published in the Journal of Aging and Health  found that older adults with higher levels of social support and integration (as opposed to isolation) were less likely to develop high blood pressure (hypertension).
  • Greater Longevity
    People who had a higher degree of social integration and more numerous social connections were found to be significantly healthier and to live longer than those who were less well connected, according to research based on data from four long-term national studies that was published in PNAS.

What You Can Do

Holiday gatherings can be challenging, no matter how close relationships with friends and family may be. Try these tips for avoiding stress:

  • Learn to Say No
    Too many responsibilities can make you feel overwhelmed and anxious.
  • Admit your Feelings
    You don’t have to be happy all the time during the holidays. Accept that you will also sometimes feel sadness, irritation, anger and other normal feelings.
  • Be Adaptable
    Minimize personal stress by cultivating a sense of humor, limiting the time you spend with difficult family members and taking time for yourself if you need it.
  • Go Easy on Yourself
    You don’t have to be a super cook, a perfect conversationalist or the most doting grandmother ever. Try to judge yourself less and enjoy yourself more.
  • Minimize Participation, if Necessary
    If family gatherings are difficult for you or leave you feeling depressed, it makes sense to limit your participation or avoid them altogether.

This article originally appeared in Mind, Mood & Memory, a publication of the Department of Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital dedicated to maintaining mental fitness from middle age and beyond.

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