If you or someone you know struggles in social settings, you know how that can impact mental health—it has long been linked to depression and anxiety.
But new research is showing social skills are also linked to physical health. What’s the connection? People who struggle to be social experience more stress and loneliness, both of which can harm your health over time. Researchers think longterm stress and loneliness can be just as harmful to your health as smoking or eating a fatty diet without exercise.
The stress of loneliness
Which social skills correlate with health? Researchers at the University of Arizona, led by Chris Segrin, head of the UA Department of Communication, focused on four skills in their study: the ability to provide emotional support to others; the ability to share personal information with others; the ability to stand up to unreasonable requests from others; and the ability to introduce yourself to others and get to know them.
The researchers asked 775 people, ages 18 to 91, to respond to questions about these skills and about their levels of stress and loneliness and their mental and physical health.
The people who said they weren’t good at those four social skills said they were more stressed, more lonely and had worse mental and physical health.
Scientists have known for a long time that chronic stress is not good for you, but the concept of loneliness as a health risk is relatively new.
“We started realizing about 15 years ago that loneliness is actually a pretty serious risk for health problems. It’s as serious of a risk as smoking, obesity or eating a high-fat diet with lack of exercise,” Segrin said in an interview with the University of Arizona.
People who are lonely are scrambling to find something—kind of like when you’re trying to get out the door and can’t find your keys.
“When we lose our keys, 99 percent of the time we find them, the stress goes away, we get in the car and it’s over,” he said. “Lonely people experience that same sort of frantic search — in this case, not for car keys but for meaningful relationships — and they don’t have the ability to escape from that stress.
“They’re not finding what they’re looking for, and that stress of frantically searching takes a toll on them.”
Why we act how we act
Segrin has studied social skills for 31 years. We learn social skills over time, he said, though there is scientific evidence that some of these traits are hereditary.
People who struggle with social skills can get professional help to overcome those challenges, either from a therapist, an executive coach or a support group, for example. Social anxiety disorder, the sometimes-incapacitating fear of being judged or rejected in social situations, is the second-most commonly diagnosed anxiety disorder, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, and is treatable with therapy and medication. (Feeling uncomfortable in social situations isn’t the same thing as having social anxiety disorder—do some research or ask a professional if you think you’re experiencing anxiety symptoms.)
You can also get better at social interactions with practice. Putting yourself into structured social situations—by signing up for an art class or an adult soccer league—can help you stretch your comfort zone.
And while you’re doing it, try to put down your phone. Segrin believes reliance on technology is making it feel unnecessarily weird to talk face-to-face with another person.
“The use of technology—texting, in particular—is probably one of the biggest impediments for developing social skills in young people today,” Segrin said. “Everything is so condensed and parsed out in sound bites, and that’s not the way that human beings for thousands of years have communicated. It makes young people more timid when they’re face-to-face with others, and they’re not sure what to say (or) what to do.”
Improving your social skills is not only great for your personal and professional life, making it easier for you to do everything from asking someone on a date to getting that raise you’ve been wanting, but also your longterm physical health.