Since 1992, April has been celebrated as “Stress Awareness Month”. The idea is to become mindful of the causes, take conscious steps to deal with stressors, develop strategies and make lifestyle changes that allow us to reduce it in daily life. For 2022, the theme is “Community”.
The UK-based Stress Management Society has chosen this because the last two years of the pandemic saw many people feeling lonely and socially isolated. This has impacted mental health, self-esteem, even their view of the world. So if you also have felt and experienced this, you are not alone: Both my clinical experience and global trends show that people across age groups and gender have felt disconnected, lonely, and alone. When schools moved to virtual classes, children were reporting loneliness accompanied by sadness.
The sense of community is one of the fundamental pillars of our emotional and psychological well-being. As human beings, we all have a need to connect with others, be seen, heard, and belong to communities that meet these needs. Communities provide a safe space and stability in an uncertain world.
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In 1986, social psychologists David W. McMillan and David M. Chavis developed the theory of “Sense of Community”. They define a sense of community as “a feeling that members have of belonging, a feeling that members matter to one another and to the group, and a shared faith that members’ needs will be met through their commitment to each other”. I personally love this definition, for it embodies important themes of reciprocity, trust, acceptance, and compassion.
These may not always be articulated clearly, yet when we belong to these communities, we experience all these. It can be felt deeply, even if it’s hard to describe.
My very first experience of community was when I was 18 years old and started travelling to college by train. I took the same train every day for three years, making friends with women, across age groups, who took the same train. Thinking about it even now is soothing. Belonging to this community gave me confidence, it made me feel less alone, and in difficult moments, whether they were personal or when we were stuck in the train due to torrential rains, just their presence added to my resilience and reduced my anxiety.
During the pandemic, for instance, a client commented, “Going to film festivals and knowing who exactly I would meet, the discussions post the film and then catching up over tea, felt like community and now I miss it so much.”
Communities are formed on the basis of location, interests, gender, cultural identity, professions, age—whether it’s women who support each other, mommy groups, expats in a certain part of a city, book clubs, people you meet at the gym/club, meditation circles. Communities can exist in many forms, providing opportunities to learn, share life lessons, a chance to offer and seek support, and, most importantly, offer social engagement. At their core, they allow people to find meaning and connect with others at an emotional level. Both connection and social engagement contribute to mental well-being and help manage stress.
In a world where networking and hourly optimisation have become crucial, it’s important to look for communities beyond work. These can give us purpose, a chance to deepen our personal identity, and help us recognise how inter-dependent our lives are.
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Now, when the world is opening up, it’s important to work consciously to rebuild our sense of community. For, belonging to a community comes with gifts that are rare, such as warmth, acceptance, support, a little nudge when you need it, a chance to experience vicarious happiness and work towards moments of shared joy.
Sonali Gupta is a Mumbai-based clinical psychologist. She is the author of the book Anxiety: Overcome It And Live Without Fear and has a YouTube channel, Mental Health with Sonali.