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How Relationships Keep You Healthy

With Valentine's Day this month, now's the perfect time to assess your relationships with friends, family and/or significant others. Believe it or not, having good social relationships is just as important to your health as exercising, taking your medications and quitting smoking.

A recent study conducted at Brigham Young University in Utah found that people with strong social relationships were 50 percent less likely to die early than people without them. Having low levels of social interaction was found to have the same effect as being an alcoholic, was more harmful than not exercising and twice as harmful as obesity.

"From the very beginning, we are social creatures," said Dr. Tim Kearney, behavioral health director at Community Health Center, Inc. "As babies, we learn from the world around us. I work a lot with kids, and their biggest issue is feeling like other kids don't like them. This continues into adulthood. We define ourselves in terms of other people."

If you're feeling lonely, it can be easy to get consumed with feelings of sadness and isolate yourself even more. But making small changes can have a huge impact on your health and happiness. Kearney identifies some of the best ways to begin making connections with others and, ultimately, create a strong social circle:

Join a support group. If you're struggling with a particular problem, like an eating disorder or addiction, self-help groups are a great way to get help and form relationships with people who can relate to you. Similarly, many peer support groups exist, ranging from groups of women with postpartum depression to groups for those who are caregivers to family members. To find a group in your area, call the Infoline at 211. If you see a behavioral health provider, he or she can also refer you to local groups.

Get on the computer. Want to find other people looking for hiking buddies within a 10-mile radius? Or maybe a group that goes to dance clubs in a nearby city? Finding people with your interests who are also looking to connect is easier than ever, thanks to social media networks likeMeetUp.com. Within minutes, you can find people in your area who enjoy the same activities or have the same careers as you. "A lot of my clients use MeetUp.com," said Kearney. "It's an incredibly empowering way for people who have little or no connections to begin building them."

Venture into your community. What are your passions? Find a church or local organization that matches your interests and volunteer. In addition to meeting like-minded people who share a common cause, you'll feel good about helping someone else and making a difference.

Practice positive self-talk. Beating yourself up will only compound your feelings of loneliness. "I hear a lot of No one wants to be friends with me. I must be a terrible/boring/[insert negative adjective here] person'," said Kearney. "But it's simply not true. And your success in making new connections hinges on how you think and view yourself."

In the meantime, reframe the idea of being alone. Look at is as an opportunity to examine what you want in life and create a plan to make it happen. "Even if you have a great social network, it's important to regularly pull back and recharge your batteries," said Kearney.