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Think about some of your most cherished memories -- the ones that make you smile and leave you feeling warm. I'll bet most of them involve people important to you. We aren't designed to conquer life on our own. Recent research on effective stress management strategies for humanitarian aid workers suggests that it is our relationships with others that help us even more than our personal coping knowledge and skills. Humanitarian workers with low social support were 4 times more likely than those with medium or high levels of support to be experiencing traumatization, and 2.5 times as likely to be experiencing some form of physical illness (see Fawcett, 2003). Above all other factors we seem to be dependent upon the strength and nature of our social and spiritual relationships.
An effective social support network is not simply made up of a huge number of acquaintances. It must involve people that you know well, and that you remain in regular communication with. It is even better if the people in your social support network also know each other well. Those closest to us are not only there to hang out and share the good times (although this is important). But having a heart to heart talk with a friend gives you chance to vent frustrations, disappointments, and pent up emotions. Explaining your problems out loud helps sort out the trivial from the traumatic. It can also help you organize and prioritize problems in your own mind, see possible solutions, and motivate you to take action. Hearing someone else say "that must be tough" is a good reminder that you don't have to feel guilty about being stressed when life is difficult. It's also reassuring to know you're not alone in what you're facing.
Developing your social support may feel draining because it doesn’t always happen quickly or naturally. You might have to make daily, intentional decisions to reach out to people around you. In light of the daily challenges facing aid workers, sometimes it’s easy to view building meaningful relationships as unproductive. But it's clear that when it comes to lightening that stress load, and increasing our personal resilience and joy, time invested in family and friends is far from wasted!
This month, try... setting some goals around strengthening or maintaining a good social support network that involves both give and take. Pick up the phone, write an email, or visit someone. Let someone important to you know how you are, and that you care for them.
Fawcett, J. (2003). Stress and trauma handbook: Strategies for flourishing in demanding environments. World Vision International: California.
Adapted by Fara Choi from our Peace by Piece series written by Lisa McKay.
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