One of the most challenging aspects of depression is the sense of isolation it can create. The low mood associated with depression and the loss of enjoyment in our favorite activities can cause us to retreat - once that happens, the aloneness feeds into itself. As social beings, the more disconnected from our communities we become, the more depressed we feel. Then, as we become more depressed, the harder it can be to maintain, rebuild, or create those connections. The cycle feeds into itself, creating a pattern of isolation that can be difficult to break.
It is important to work at it though, because the benefits of social connectedness in diminishing the symptoms of depression are well-documented across all age groups. In a study looking at clinically depressed people, it was found that membership in one or more social groups reduced the risk of relapse significantly in both the short- and long-term, and that a greater number of memberships produced an even greater reduction of risk (Cruwys et al., 2013). The great news is that this correlation wasn’t even about having close interpersonal ties, merely the fact of regularly being around other people with common interests. So simply getting out and getting involved on a consistent basis can provide benefits, lessening the pressure to immediately make lasting personal connections.
Specific types of social activities have also been shown to have mental health benefits. Small-scale studies looking at women with Major Depressive Disorder suggest that a gentle yoga practice, in particular, could lessen symptoms
by providing a supportive community and coping mechanism (Kinser, Bourguignon, Whaley, Hauenstein, & Taylor, 2013; Kinser, Bourguignon, Taylor, & Steeves, 2013). Furthermore, a study of spiritual and social connectedness of older Christians found that giving one’s time to support others in a social manner was correlated to better overall mental health; it seems that interacting with others in a volunteer setting is another excellent way to overcome the terrible combination of isolation and depression (Lee, 2014). Finally, in a look at the differing levels of depression in collegiate athlete and non-athlete young adults, it was found that social connectedness was one of the factors most closely tied to depression; athletes reported stronger levels of social connectedness and lower levels of depression compared to non-athletes (Armstrong & Oomen, 2009). Joining a local team could be a great way to build the social ties that aid in banishing isolation and depression.
So, we know that community connectedness is important, and that there are many excellent ways of achieving that connectedness, but where do we actually begin if we want to break the isolation/depression cycle? It can feel daunting, but there are numerous resources here in our St. Petersburg and Tampa Bay area to get us started.
Meetup.com is a great tool for finding like-minded people with similar interests. You begin by creating an account and profile, selecting as many areas of interest as you want. Meetup then recommends local groups based on your interests, and you can join as many or as few as you'd like to start with. Types of groups range from book clubs and athletic activities to arts-based hobbies and professional networks; they can even be as broad as gender- and age-based social groups with a wide range of activities on their calendars. Organizers in each group will have meetups posted that you can RSVP to - you'll be able to see who else is going, where to meet, and other event details before you decide whether or not to sign up. Some great Meetups to get you started include Mindful Ways to Wellness, which offers a variety of yoga and meditation classes and wellness workshops to get you started on a holistic approach to your mental health, and Happy Healthy Living St. Pete, featuring weekly meditation meetups (often followed by a meal), as well as other health and wellness-focused activities.
Don't feel like you have to go to everything all at once; overwhelming yourself can be counterproductive. Give yourself credit for each step you take, and don’t worry if you don't meet your new best friend at an event - even just a couple of hours of getting out there and trying is building positive momentum to counteract the cycle of isolation.
If Meetup doesn't turn out to be your style, there are still plenty of ways to get out and get connected in St. Petersburg. If you loved sports in school, and you miss the camaraderie of being on a team, Tampa Bay Sports Club could be a great way to meet people. They welcome individuals to sign up and are almost always able to add folks to existing teams, or even create new teams from solo sign-ups. They offer everything from the usual suspects like soccer, basketball, and volleyball, to non-traditional activities like bar games, kickball, and dodgeball tournaments. They also have three levels of competitiveness for most sports, not to mention one-day events like putt-putt golf. A sports league is a great way to meet new folks because you have the benefit of regular meetings with the same people - there's plenty of opportunity to build relationships. Committing to a full season can help you keep up your positive momentum, as well. Better still, the mental health benefits of exercise are well-documented.
Sports aren't everyone's thing, of course, and not everyone has the funds or flexibility to commit to a league. Fortunately, St. Petersburg is home to a wealth of cultural and community events and activities throughout the year. One of the best clearinghouses for finding out what's going on around town is the Tampa Bay Times weekend section, which is available for free online and searchable by date. They cover plays, concerts, food festivals, budget-friendly happenings, and so much more.
Also worth exploring during the fall through spring months are the local farmers markets. St. Petersburg's Saturday Morning Market is the biggest, but to find others in the area happening throughout the week, check out Local Harvest's website. Chatting with vendors and picking up some healthy, fresh foods is an excellent way to get out into the world and feel connected.
Local community centers are a great resource as well. At their various locations throughout St. Pete, they offer a wealth of programs and classes at low cost, including a variety of levels and styles of dance, fitness classes like Zumba and yoga, arts and crafts like pottery and painting, and even foreign language-learning courses. There again, you have the benefit of regular classes to create long-term connections with people who have common interests.
Sometimes striking up a conversation with someone new can feel daunting; if you've got a dog, though, you've got an automatic ice breaker. Check out one of St. Pete's many beautiful dog parks and beaches or dog-friendly bars and try asking someone else about their pup. I myself have made close friends and career connections by hanging out at the dog park at the same time every day. The sunshine and puppy antics alone are a mood booster.
Giving back to the community can also be an incredible way to make connections. VolunteerMatch is a great place to get started. You can search for individual events, like assisting with a charity 5k, or long-term commitments, like becoming a Big Brother or Big Sister. You can filter by your areas of interest and your skill set, as well. It can be hard to break out of the cycle of isolation, but there is a great local community out there waiting for you.
If you've explored these options from home and are still having a hard time mustering the energy and momentum to get out there, or if you've found a good fit out there and are still struggling with low mood or anxiety, it may help to find a mental health professional to help guide and support you. Mindful Ways to Wellness in downtown St. Petersburg is an excellent resource for mental health counseling and other holistic healing practices, like life coaching, nutrition consultations, and neurofeedback. They even offer yoga and donation-based meditation classes throughout the week, as well as wellness workshops on a variety of topics.
Breaking free from the patterns of isolation can be immensely challenging, but there are opportunities of all kinds to connect in St. Pete, and simply seeking out this information is a great first step.
Armstrong, S., & Oomen-Early, J. (2009). Social Connectedness, Self-Esteem, and Depression Symptomatology Among Collegiate Athletes Versus Nonathletes. Journal of American College Health,57(5), 521-526. doi:10.3200/jach.57.5.521-526
Cruwys, T., Dingle, G. A., Haslam, C., Haslam, S. A., Jetten, J., & Morton, T. A. (2013). Social group memberships protect against future depression, alleviate depression symptoms and prevent depression relapse [Abstract]. Social Science & Medicine,98, 179-186. doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2013.09.013
Kinser, P. A., Bourguignon, C., Whaley, D., Hauenstein, E., & Taylor, A. G. (2013). Feasibility, Acceptability, and Effects of Gentle Hatha Yoga for Women With Major Depression: Findings From a Randomized Controlled Mixed-Methods Study [Abstract]. Archives of Psychiatric Nursing,27(3), 137-147. doi:10.1016/j.apnu.2013.01.003
Kinser, P. A., Bourguignon, C., Taylor, A. G., & Steeves, R. (2013). “A Feeling of Connectedness”: Perspectives on a Gentle Yoga Intervention for Women with Major Depression [Abstract]. Issues in Mental Health Nursing,34(6), 402-411. doi:10.3109/01612840.2012.762959
Lee, E. S. (2014). The Impact of Social and Spiritual Connectedness on the Psychological Well-being Among Older Americans [Abstract]. Journal of Religion, Spirituality & Aging,26(4), 300-319. doi:10.1080/15528030.2013.879090