The problem with today’s digital age is that it gives us the illusion of connection without delivering on the meaty part. As friendship expert Marisa Franco tells NPR Radio, “I think the trickiness of social media is it gives us these snacks of connection. And it’s like we’ve been subsisting on snacks of connection from social media rather than having the sort of nutrient dense meal of in-person connection.”
This shortfall is especially troubling when it comes to anxiety, a condition nearly a third of adults will experience at some point in their lifetime. Among the many coping systems available, friendship is a surprisingly effective buffer.
“Social contact is nature’s antidote to stress, and talking face to face with a good listener is one of the fastest ways to calm your nervous system and relieve stress,” write researchers Smith, Siegel and Robinson, in a 2023 paper on the topic (as quoted in Psychology Today).
Social contact is nature’s antidote to stress
Friendship, then, is a kind of antiviral that works particularly well for anxiety – albeit one we don’t get enough of. According to scientists from Oxford University, its soothing ability could be down to the role of feel-good endorphins promoted by social bonding.
Anxiety is among a number of mood disorders linked to endorphin deficiency. The very same hormone “gives us that feel-good factor that we get from seeing our friends”, says Katerina Johnson, from Oxford University’s Department of Psychiatry. This is true to the extent that good friends end up being “better than morphine” in terms of supporting our tolerance to pain, her study found.
So, friends are important because they activate the brain’s reward system. But in order to tap that power, we need to reclaim the “rich social environment” that we evolved to thrive in, says Johnson. That means getting out into the world, to relish the quality and depth of real-life connections. And, crucially for anxiety sufferers, it also means overcoming a common urge to want to withdraw from and avoid those around you.
Friends provide a safety net for tough times
Not every friend is equal, however. When it comes to providing “a safety net for tough times”, empathetic listeners are best, says US-based clinical psychologist Abigail Powers Lott. These are the people who can encourage us to “talk things out” by way of an active coping mechanism; as opposed to passive coping, which might look like “curling up alone and distracting yourself with three straight seasons of Friends on Netflix”.
This protective effect is so profound that experiments have shown that a number of physical changes occur – including stabilised blood pressure – when we confide in a supportive friend (as opposed to a friend we feel more ambivalent about).
On the other end of the scale, a study from the University of California, Los Angeles, linked the presence of toxic friends – including those who reject or threaten us – to increased stress proteins and inflammation in the body.
One conversation a day can make the difference
Quality, then, is key when it comes to friendship’s powerful anxiety antidote. And the good news is, just one conversation a day can make the difference. According to a 2023 paper from the University of Kansas, the very act of intentionally reaching out to a friend – whether through meaningful talk, joking around or offering compliments – is enough to lower stress levels and make people feel more bonded.
“This study suggests that anyone who makes time for high-quality conversation can improve their wellbeing,” says lead author, professor Jeffrey Hall. “We can change how we feel on any given day through communication. Just once is all it takes.”
So, the next time you feel anxious try grabbing a coffee with a close friend. It’s simple advice and we hear it the whole time. But it really can make a difference in how you perceive and respond to the world around you; one small interaction at a time.
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