Maintaining Wellness Tip No 4 Relying on Social Supports

Candace, a 49-year-old woman with bipolar II disorder, suffered from an ongoing depression that was not alleviated by antidepressants or mood stabilizers. After becoming frustrated with the myriad of medications she had tried, she consulted a psychotherapist, who observed that she was quite socially isolated: She had broken up with her boyfriend two months earlier, she had few new friends or even acquaintances, and she had become disconnected from her parents and her two sisters. Her therapist encouraged her to try some new social activities, which she strongly resisted doing. Her weekends were largely spent alone in her apartment, where "my thoughts eat me alive,"

Candace had few hobbies in her current life but had played soccer in college. With some reluctance, she joined a group who played soccer on weekends. She felt awkward at first. "They're not my kind of people," she observed. At the beginning she had to force herself to go. Little by little, however, she found that her weekends became more structured because of the soccer practices. Although she never admitted to enjoying the members of the team, she did notice that her mood brightened when she participated in an activity with them. At first she thought this was due to physical exercise, but she found that her mood also brightened when she went to pot-luck dinners or movies at the team members' houses. She eventually disclosed her illness to a few of her teammates, who "weren't fazed like I thought they'd be." With time, the group became like a second family to her, and she began dating one of the men. After playing with the team for six months, she acknowledged in one of her therapy sessions that her chronic depression, while still present, was not as bad as it had been before she had made these connections.

Social support—feeling emotional connections with people with whom one regularly interacts—is an important protective factor against depression. Sheri Johnson and her colleagues found that after an episode of depression, people with bipolar disorder who had good social support systems recovered more quickly and had less severe depression symptoms over a six-month period than those with small or nonexistent support systems (Johnson et al., 1999). Similar findings have come from studies of people with major depression (for example, Brown & Harris, 1978). In other words, having a group of people you know well, whom you trust with knowing about your bipolar disorder, and whom you see with some regularity will help you do better in terms of the cycling of your disorder.

You may be a person who seeks out others naturally, or you may prefer spending time by yourself. Either way, when you're depressed, it is hard to interact with anybody. Unless you have a social support system in place when you're well, you may find it hard to reach out for the very help you need when depression strikes. Likewise, maintaining regular contact with your social support group when you're well will do much to prevent future depression. When you encounter the inevitable conflicts that come up with family members or coworkers, your friends and supportive relatives can be like a landing pad for comfort and steadiness. They provide a counterpart to, and minimize the impact of, stressful conflicts.

I don't want to oversimplify things by implying that just having people around you is all that counts. As 1 discussed in Chapter 5, high levels of conflict with certain members of your core circle, particularly family members, can be associated with a more difficult course of your illness. It is empathic, give-and-take relationships with members of your core circle, and just plain low-key social time, that will best protect you from depression. Needless to say, that won't always be possible. Chapter 12, on family and work relationships, will acquaint you with skills to help you maximize the positive influences of your social support system.

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How to Stop Your Depression Now

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