It’s no secret that our society is becoming increasingly less social. Many of us prefer to communicate and connect via text, phone call, Facebook, or email—anything but face-to-face. And when we do happen to forego our phones or our computers, we freeze up. That security blanket of a screen is no longer there, and we suddenly forget how to talk to one another; we lose our confidence and struggle to tap into those social skills we once had.
One may think, “What’s the big deal? I can live in the comfort of my smartphone if I want to.” Which is true—except they might be interested to know that the excessive use of technology is a huge impediment for developing social skills. And poor social skills just might mean poor health: A new study “Indirect Effects of Social Skills on Health Through Stress and Loneliness” from the University of Arizona shows that people who struggle in social settings may be at a heightened risk for developing both mental and physical health problems.
People with poor social skills typically experience more stress and loneliness than the average person, which appears to be responsible for this health decline, says Chris Segrin, author of the study and head of the UA Department of Communication. And while the effect on mental health comes as no surprise, the effect on physical health does: “We’ve known for a long time that social skills are associated with mental health problems like depression and anxiety. But we’ve not known definitively that social skills were also predictive of poorer physical health.”
These findings come from a survey of 775 people across the U.S., ranging from age 18 to 91, which was designed to measure social skills, loneliness, stress, and mental as well as physical health. Segrin narrowed in on four specific social skill measurements: the ability to provide others with emotional support; the ability to share personal information with others (self-disclosure); the ability to stand up for oneself (negative assertion skills); and the ability to get to know new people (relationship initiation skills). He found that those who struggled in these areas reported increased levels of stress, loneliness, and poorer mental and physical health.
The harmful effects of stress on our health have been observed for a long time, but loneliness is recognized as a fairly new variable and its importance is further highlighted in this study. “We started realizing about 15 years ago that loneliness is actually a pretty serious risk for health problems,” explains Segrin. “It’s as serious of a risk as smoking, obesity, or eating a high-fat diet with lack of exercise.”
To put the harmful experience of loneliness into perspective, Segrin compares it to scrambling for your keys when you’re running out the door: “When we lose our keys, 99% of the time we find them, the stress goes away, we get in the car, and it’s over. 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.”
There is, however, good news: social skills can be improved and refined through therapy, counseling, or social skills training. The only catch is that one must first recognize his or her social skills need some work, which isn’t always the case. “One of the problems with possessing poor social skills is lack of social awareness… they don’t see themselves as a problem,” explains Segrin. “They’re walking around with this health risk factor and they’re not even aware of it.”
This study shows just how important good communication skills are. “They will not just benefit you in your social life, but they’ll benefit your physical health,” says Segrin. So put down your smartphone, log off of your computer, and engage in some real-life conversations and experiences—your health depends on it.
Sources: “Indirect Effects of Social Skills on Health Through Stress and Loneliness” by Chris Segrin in Health Communication. Published online October 20 2017 doi:10.1080/10410236.2017.1384434
University of Arizona “Poor Social Skills May Be Harmful to Health.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 6 November 2017. <http://neurosciencenews.com/social-skills-health-7887/>.
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