Building relationships with others is important to our mental and physical health.

Research suggests that people with large support networks are healthier. Those around you can help you deal with stress and grief and ward off isolation and depression. Your support network influences your physical health in a variety of ways, including when you go to the doctor and for what.

Your network also impacts your ability to make health-related behavior changes. It is difficult to reduce fat or salt in your diet or to become physically active on a regular basis when family members and friends make fun of or discourage your efforts to change.

On the other hand, it becomes easier to maintain a behavior change or carry out a treatment plan when you have the support of family and friends.

Healthy supportive relationships contribute significantly to our sense of well-being. Who are the important people in your life? Who makes you feel better about yourself?

Think about your support system for a moment. Get out a piece of paper and draw five concentric circles — a small circle in the middle and then four more around it, making each circle a little bigger. When you are done, your drawing will look like a target. Make the circles big enough so that you can write in them.

• Write your name in the inner-most circle, the smallest one.

• In the next circle, write down the names of your immediate family members. Usually these would be people you live with. A spouse, your children, possibly your parents or a brother or sister if they live with you. Some people include their pets.

• In the next circle, write the names of other family members or friends — the people you feel close to but don't live with. These are people you can count on. Include people in this circle who you feel make a real difference in your life. This could include grown children who no longer live with you, your brothers and sisters, grandparents, cousins, in-laws and friends. Maybe you would put your minister in this circle. Every person's network is different. You might decide that your minister belongs in this circle while someone else might feel they belong in the next circle.

• In the fourth circle, write down the names of acquaintances. These could be neighbors, distant relatives, people you work with, a minister, individuals from your church or a social group you belong to. These are people who you might stop to say “Hello” to if you saw them on the street but you wouldn't share any secrets with them. Your contact with these individuals is more limited and more formal.

• Now think about all the people in the community who have an influence on your life even though you don't know them by name — the mayor, county commissioners, policemen, teachers, social workers, the hospital administrator, public health nurses, the bank president, business owners, the Boys and Girls Club, the YMCA, etc. These are people or organizations that influence your life because of the rules and policies that they set. Some represent formal sources of assistance and help that goes beyond what families or friends can provide.

As we move further and further from our inner circle, our trust level and commitment to people diminishes. Our attitudes to a great degree determine which people we assign to each of these circles. The tighter we draw our circles, the more we close ourselves off from people who could make a difference in our lives.

Your social network is a valuable resource. Look at your support network and think of strategies for moving more people into the inner circles of your network. Both you and they will benefit.

• Jennifer Russell is an area child and family development agent for the Mississippi State University Extension Service. You may contact her at 453-6803 or jtb20@ext.msstate.edu.

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