When did you last have a long chat with a close friend? How did you feel afterwards? The pandemic has been challenging for many reasons, not least feeling cut off from our friends and the support they provide. Now things are starting to open up again, there are more opportunities to see friends – though that may cause anxiety for some. But the importance of good friends to our emotional wellbeing is well documented.

Now, more than ever, friends are vital to our mental health. And this is a time of year when friendship is celebrated. International Friendship Day – a UN initiative – takes place each year on 30 July. And, in the US, National Friendship Day is celebrated on the first Sunday in August. But focusing on friendship is important throughout the year.

Positive effects of friendship

We’re social beings, and friendship is a fundamental human need. According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, friends and intimate relationships are our top psychological needs. While popular culture often prioritises romantic relationships, friends can be among the most significant relationships in our lives. They may be the people who know us best – and have known us the longest.

Friends offer emotional, social and practical support. They cheer us up, make us laugh and help us overcome loneliness. Friends listen to our problems, cheerlead our goals and aspirations, keep us motivated and help us keep things in perspective. Here are some of the ways friends have a positive effect on our mental health:

  • Avoid loneliness and isolation. Many of us have felt isolated in lockdown, especially if we’ve been shielding or struggling with anxiety. Friends provide company, activity partners, support, a shoulder to cry on – and people to have a laugh with.
  • Boost confidence and self-esteem. Good friends boost our sense of self-worth and generally make us feel good about ourselves.
  • A sense of belonging. We all need to feel like we belong. Friends sit in the middle of Maslow’s five-stage pyramid of needs, in the category ‘belongingness and love needs’.
  • Motivation. Sometimes it’s hard to feel motivated on our own. For example, if you want to start a new exercise regime (which is great for your mental health, by the way), it’s often easier to summon the enthusiasm to go on a run, cycle ride or to the gym with a friend. Team sports are even better for social motivation.
  • Accountability. Setting goals, learning something new and achieving a sense of mastery are all good for our mental health. And there’s nothing like sharing your goals with a friend to make you stick to them! Find a friend who can be an ‘accountability partner’. You can keep each other focused on what you want to achieve – whether that’s a new hobby, project or skill.
  • Practical support. Friends can be there for you to support you when you need it most. This may include help with crises and life events such as divorce or redundancy – or positive yet stressful upheavals such as moving house.
  • Emotional support. They say a problem shared is a problem halved – and a good friend can offer support for life’s difficulties. If you’re struggling with anxiety or depression at the moment, for example, speaking to a close friend can help you feel better. But if you don’t have someone to talk to, or you’d rather not speak to friends about some things, talking to a therapist can be enormously helpful. Find out more about how you can get started with My Online Therapy.

What if I don’t have many friends?

What if you don’t have many friends to confide in and provide social support? There are lots of reasons why friends can be hard to find, including:

  • You’ve moved. You’ve recently moved to a new area, maybe for work or family reasons, and don’t know many people in your local area yet.
  • Your friends have moved. You may have lost touch with people because of distance, or find it hard to maintain long-distance friendships.
  • You’re just… older. As we get older, we tend to have fewer friends. As work, family demands or other responsibilities take over, it’s easy to overlook the importance of friendships, and start to lose touch with people. But studies show that older adults who are socially active have higher late-life satisfaction – and delayed late-life decline.
  • Social anxiety. You may find social interaction difficult because of social anxiety. Also known as social phobia, this is a common anxiety disorder characterised by persistent and overwhelming fear of social situations. We all get a bit anxious about social situations at times. But someone with social anxiety will worry more frequently and intensely at the thought of a social situation.
  • Inertia. Sometimes it just feels like too much hard work to make friends. Particularly if we’re feeling depressed, we may withdraw from social events, and lose interest in things we once enjoyed – such as activities with friends. But getting out to meet a friend – or having a sympathetic chat on the telephone – might be just what we need to start feeling better.

Or you might simply not know where to start. But there are ways to get out there and make new friends – and maintain the ones we have.

How to make and maintain friendships

Here are some tips for making new friends – and maintaining your existing friendships:

  • Rekindle old friendships. Is there someone you’ve lost touch with – perhaps because of distance, shifting priorities or just sheer busyness? Get in touch. They’ll probably be delighted you did.
  • Use technology. The technology we relied on during lockdown – Zoom drinks, online book clubs, WhatsApp groups or FaceTime chats – can also be used in more normal times, if distance is an issue. And it doesn’t have to be Zoom. Pick up the telephone and have a chat with that old friend you’ve been meaning to catch up with. But make meaningful connections. Having hundreds of Facebook friends isn’t the same.
  • Join a group. If you’ve moved to a new area, joining a group of like-minded people can be a great way to kick-start new friendships. Think about what you’re interested in and what your values are. A community group, local charity, sports team or evening class can all help you meet people you’re likely to click with.
  • Overcome social anxiety. If anxiety is holding you back from making new friends – or meeting up with current friends – therapy can be very effective in helping you to understand the origins of your social anxiety and helping you to overcome it. Or Try our Self-care courses, which can help you understand and manage your anxiety.
  • Manage Covid-anxiety. As things start to open up again, we can once more meet friends in real life – though that comes with added anxieties for some. It can be helpful to see this through the framework of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), where we work towards living a life based on our values and goals. What are the things you really care about in life – and what’s the potential cost of not pursuing them because of fear? It might be worth tolerating some level of anxiety (while taking any necessary precautions) in order to see your friends again.
  • Be patient. Don’t be discouraged if it takes a while, or some of the people you meet turn out not to become your new best buddies. Give it time. One study found that two people need to spend 90 hours together to become friends – or 200 hours to become close friends.
  • Be a good listener. Friendship is a two-way street. Actively listen to your friends, and allow them to share their thoughts and feelings too.

Making friends takes time – and maintaining them takes work. But it’s always worth the effort. And remember that, although friendship is important for our mental health, it’s not a substitute for mental health treatment. If you’re struggling with mental health difficulties, we’re here to help.