Reunions are on the horizon, but what is it about social bonds that makes them run so deep?
Family means something different to all of us. For some, it’s nuclear, for others it’s blended, adopted, or chosen. Our friends also join us in our inner circles, standing with us through the good and bad – celebrating our successes, and filling our worlds with laughter, love, and happiness.
It goes without saying that the past year has been a difficult one for connections, and it’s hit our mental health hard. Between October 2020 and February 2021, results from the Opinions and Lifestyle Survey (OPN) found that 7.2% of adults (about 3.7 million people) reported that they felt lonely ‘often’ or ‘always’.
But now, finally, get-togethers are on the horizon as lockdown restrictions begin to lift, and we can tentatively start to piece our old lives back together again. And there’s a particular French concept that springs to mind: ‘retrouvailles’ loosely translates to ‘reunion’ – coming from the verb ‘retrouver’, which means ‘to find’, or ‘to rediscover’. But beyond the literal, retrouvailles is a notion that captures the emotions we feel when reuniting with someone after a long separation, rediscovering the pleasure of their company, and the way that they enhance your life. And that’s something a lot of us will tap into over the coming months.
“Humans are naturally pack animals, we like being with other people, and most people need others to feel well mentally,” Dr Laura Vowels, a family therapist, says when reflecting on how the past year’s separation may have touched us. “Humans, in general, also have a need to belong – a natural motivation to feel accepted by other people. ”
And it’s not just about being in good company. Dr Vowels also highlights how important touch is – something that the need for social distancing has taken away from us. “Touch has a calming effect because it decreases the stress hormone cortisol in the body, and therefore slows down the heart rate and decreases blood pressure,” she explains. “Touch also increases the production of oxytocin, which makes us feel safe, trusting, and connected. So being around people does not just feel good, it actually makes us better.”
Of course, all this may prompt us to reflect on what we’ve missed out on over the past year, and any feelings of loss and mourning are valid and understandable. But, on the other hand, it’s also an opportunity for us to celebrate the power of connection, and harness that closeness as we rediscover the ways that our relationships shape and support our lives.
That said, you may find that there’s a sliver of anxiety running alongside your excitement – after a year of relative isolation, mingling again may not feel immediately natural. Dr Vowels’s tip is to accept those feelings and to take things at your own pace.
“You could try to do some mindfulness or meditation before you see your loved ones,” she suggests. “If you feel comfortable, talk to them about feeling nervous ahead of time. They can then understand if you’re a bit more quiet or reserved than you usually would be. They may also be feeling the same thing, but be too scared to mention anything.”
Dr Vowels also suggests reflecting on whether you might find it easier to be one-on-one, or in a group where there will be less attention on you – whichever it is, see if you can make arrangements that suit you.
“You may also want to consider where to meet people and what to do,” she adds. “If you’re worried about having to stay for too long, it may be better not to invite people over to your place. You may instead want to go for a walk or a coffee in the park so that you can go home earlier if you’re feeling uncomfortable.”
However you chose to do it, the philosophy of retrouvailles encourages us to be curious about the happiness that we find in our relationships, to tune-in to the comfort of connecting with those who we love and cherish, and to unearth a, perhaps dormant, sense of wellbeing from spending time in good company.
To connect with a counsellor to discuss how to make the most out of your relationships or how to manage anxiety around being reunited with others, visit counselling-directory.org.uk