How to Take Care of Yourself By Connecting With Others

By Leslie Goldman

We live in truly challenging times—from coping with the isolation and loss of the pandemic to the tragedies of racial violence and school shootings to dismal news about this planet we’re spinning on. Whether we experience these things firsthand or watch events fly across our feeds, we are all affected. It is totally understandable that our mental health is taking a hit. 

In the face of these realities, recommendations to practice self-care, such as meditating for 10 minutes a day, spending time in nature, or going for a walk, can sound insensitive, naive, or even offensive. 

Yes, those practices can lower stress and increase your emotional well-being, but there is another powerful form of self-care we can turn to in the toughest times—one proven to improve mental health and even prevent suicide: connection. 

We know from scientific research that:

  • Spending quality time with supportive people—friends, family members, coworkers, coaches—protects our physical and mental health.
  • When you feel supported by others, it creates calming hormonal changes in your body that actually improve your ability to manage stress.
  • Quality matters more than quantity. Having one or two close friends or loved ones you can confide in and who make you feel seen and heard helps your mental and physical health more than being popular with tons of less-close friends.
  • There is a system in our brains—the mirror neuron system—that helps us regulate our emotions when we are with supportive people. When a supportive person is calm and understanding in response to our distress, it activates our mirror neurons, which do just what they sound like—help us mirror what we see. We mirror the response and feel safe and comforted as a result.

We’re not here to knock solo self-care. Spending time alone with your thoughts as you journal, paint, go for a run, or shoot hoops can be emotionally nourishing and super stress-relieving, but you miss out on all the benefits of being with friends, family members, or even strangers who can share the experience, helping you feel less alone while reminding you that feeling good, well, feels good.

There are all kinds of ways to do it, including big plans like concerts, reaching out to someone you love when you are struggling, and everyday interactions like a supportive group text chain. Opportunities for self-care and connection give you something to look forward to and help you manage overwhelming emotions, and they’re incredibly nourishing on a physical and emotional level. 

You don’t need to be a social butterfly. Even talking on the phone with someone you trust— someone who gets you—counts as self-care. You’ll build memories in the process, and those memories can help keep you afloat when you feel anxious, depressed, or stressed.

We talked with teens and young adults across the country to find out how they do self-care with the people in their lives, what it means to them, and how it helps.

Zoe Weinstein, 19, Boston

“Being active is a huge part of feeling good in my body and feeling good mentally. But between school, friends, and extracurriculars, it can be hard to find the motivation. So twice a week, a friend and I meet in the dorm dining hall for dinner, and then swim laps for 30 to 45 minutes at the local YMCA. Afterward, we hit the sauna and just talk. One night we might unpack something serious, like trying to prioritize feeling proud of ourselves over the need for external validation, and the next night we might make plans to see a Morgan Wade concert. We finish around 9 p.m. and go home to study. It’s easier to concentrate and very cathartic to just release it all. If I were trying to get myself to the pool on my own, it would be easy to say, ‘I’m too tired. I’m going to skip tonight.’ My friend holds me accountable. And I know I’ll feel good afterward.”

Shashank Salgam, 18, Albany, New York

“In 2022, The New York Times asked teens to submit artwork, photos, or images we felt represented what it was like growing up in the pandemic. I sent in a watercolor and colored pencil drawing called ‘Ring’ that I’d created in art class in the middle of quarantine and Zoom classes in June 2021. It depicted me holding a phone to my ear, waiting for a friend to call. Phone calls were my lifeline during lockdown. I felt anxious, depressed, and trapped, and I missed being in the same room as my friends. So my friends and I would stay up all night talking on the phone. In my entry, I wrote, ‘Human connection was at a premium, and I wanted to capture my need to connect with those I love. A simple phone call can be the bridge between worlds.’ It taught me I don’t need to be in the same physical location as a friend in order to connect.”

Jamey, 18, Manassas, Virginia

My mom left me when I was a kid, so I deal with abandonment issues. I also have bad depression and anxiety, and I have been hospitalized for attempting suicide. What’s helped me is group chatting with my cousins on FaceTime. There are five of us and whenever anyone is feeling sad or anxious, we’ll call the group chat and unload our crap. Sometimes we cry, sometimes we make jokes. We usually move on to talking about pop-culture stuff to distract us, like Drake or the Kardashians, and then someone will say, ‘Want to play Roblox?’ and we play. Being together in person is the best-case scenario, but if I’m having an emotional breakdown at 3 a.m., that’s not going to happen. Seeing their faces helps. It makes it more personal than just hearing their voices.”

Luna Deighan, 22, Chicago

“In high school, my friends and I played Dungeons & Dragons once a month at someone’s house. We’d start around 11 a.m. on a Saturday, hang out for a while, grab lunch, play, and then hang out more and sleep over. We were all on the academic decathlon team, which can be really intense and requires tons of memorization, but when we played, we weren’t worried about studying. We could just hang out and be goofy. 

“When COVID hit freshman year of college, some of my decathlon friends and I started doing weekly Zoom calls. We’d start by checking in with each other: ‘How’s everyone doing? Are we all dying inside?’ Then we’d chat for a bit before playing D&D for a few hours. I appreciated the consistency of it—of knowing, ‘Wow, this has been a tough week, but if I push through, this Sunday we have D&D.’ It is absolutely self-care. It saved me from feeling so isolated during COVID and being able to continue to escape to this little fantasy world is nice.”

Marissa Omaque, 19, Santa Cruz, California

“During quarantine, I was on Insta and TikTok constantly. All the skinny influencers looking perfect and dancing messed with my head. I weighed 200 pounds and would think, ‘Why don’t I look like that?’ I developed an eating disorder called anorexia and lost 70 pounds in six months. The algorithms kept feeding me stories about weight loss and meal plans.

“When the BeReal app came out, I liked it immediately. The app prompts you to take a daily picture of yourself, no matter how you look or what you’re doing. You only have two minutes to post, so it needs to be candid. Scrolling through BeReal pics is a nice break for me. People on TikTok are all dressed up with filtered faces, but on BeReal I see friends unfiltered, sitting on their couch with no makeup or at the gym all sweaty. There’s a silent understanding between all of us on that app that it doesn’t matter where you are or what you look like. We just appreciate seeing where our friends are and what they’re up to.”

Caroline Burkhart, 28, Orlando, Florida

“I’ve always loved concerts. Sometimes I go with a group, but I’ll go solo, too, and almost always end up making new friends there. At a 2019 Jonas Brothers show, a small group of us with meet-and-greet tickets started talking. One girl worked for the same company I did, and we clicked. We’re good friends to this day. For me, concerts are self-care because I forget about anything else going on, and I’m focused and in the moment. Hearing the lyrics that have gotten me through hard times being sung live feels euphoric. 

“A concert is the perfect environment for making new friends because if they’re there, that means they connect with the music too. You automatically have a special bond. People often become emotional at concerts. They’ll cry, scream. I love seeing couples, friends, and even strangers being there for each other in those moments, grabbing the other person’s hand or resting their head on their shoulder. These are gestures that say, ‘I see you, and I’m here for you.”

Albin Casilla Mendez, 18, Boston

“After moving here from the Dominican Republic in 2019, I was homeless for two years. I didn’t share that with the kids at my high school. We started hanging out, playing a lot of basketball. I used that to get my anger out. As we started talking more, people would ask, ‘Hey Albin, what’s up? What’s wrong?’ At first I was like, ‘Why are you annoying me?’ 

“But then I began to give them a chance. I realized that some of them understood the way I felt. Many of them were Hispanic, like me. They loved basketball like me. A bunch of us started calling ourselves the Lench Mob, after an old rap group. Now we play ball every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at a community center or at school. We’ve gotten so close off the court that on the court, we don’t even need to speak—we already know what move the other person is going to make. That feels good. And sweating and exercising makes me feel really good too.”

Zach Levis, 18, Waynesville, North Carolina

“A lot of people think self-care means freeing up their schedule so they can disconnect. There’s nothing inherently bad about that, but my thoughts start stewing when I have too much free time and I get too in my head. Having a structure to my day and filling it with activities is comforting and puts me in a better state of mind. It doesn’t have to be as specific as, ‘At 4:30 p.m. I’m meeting Sam for paintball.’ It can be more like, ‘Sometime this afternoon I want to play a video game with Travis.’ 

“I make an effort to ask friends to do things, but I also push myself to say yes when others invite me, even if I don’t think it sounds great at first. One of my sisters likes the board game Clue. I used to say no a lot when she asked me to play, but every time I ended up reluctantly playing, I had fun with her. Now I remind myself to say yes.”

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