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The Healing Power of Friendships

Friends can reduce stress and burnout in many ways.

Key points

  • Friendships can play an important protective role in the reduction of stress.
  • When it comes to the protective power of friends, quantity is not as important as quality.
  • Although face-to-face interactions may be most beneficial in reducing stress, digital connections can be beneficial as well.
RODNAE Productions/Pexels
Source: RODNAE Productions/Pexels

For those on the path to burnout, the effort it takes to maintain friendships can make you feel even more exhausted than you already do. However, before you succumb to the "what's the point?" mentality of burnout and isolate yourself even further, read on and reconsider because researchers have found that friends can play an important protective role against the negative consequences of stress (Løseth, et al., 2022).

In fact, experts suggest that one of the most effective ways to reduce symptoms of stress and burnout is to reach out to others (APA, 2022; Smith, Siegel, and Robinson, 2023). As Smith, Siegel, and Robinson write, "Social contact is nature's antidote to stress, and talking face to face with a good listener is one of the fastest ways to calm your nervous system and relieve stress."

Not only can friends be a sounding board to help you process and ameliorate the stress you're feeling, but they also can serve as a distraction from it. By encouraging stress-free activities or even something as simple as chatting over a cup of coffee, friends can help counter some of the more severe and debilitating symptoms of burnout, such as apathy, loss of enjoyment, detachment, and isolation.

Although it's common for those in the throes of burnout to resist friends' efforts to connect and get them to join activities, getting past this resistance and accepting the help and support of friends who care about you is likely to be one of the best paths to reducing stress and recovering from burnout. For those experiencing work-related stress/burnout, co-workers can provide similar buffers. You also don't need to (and shouldn't) wait for friends to reach out to you. Take the initiative and invite friends (or co-workers) to join you in stress-relieving activities, such as yoga classes, working out, or sharing whatever activity both you and they enjoy doing.

It's also important to remember that although almost all of us benefit from the addition of social and emotional support in our lives, it's not necessarily true that quantity outweighs quality. Having strong connections can significantly reduce your stress level, but you don’t need a huge network of friends to reap the benefits; A handful (or even fewer) can be just as effective and beneficial in reducing stress as large groups of friends (APA, 2022).

Equally important to remember is that not all friends are equal when it comes to offering emotional support. When you're looking for someone to help reduce stress in your life, seek out the friends you trust the most and those you've historically been able to count on when you need help. And consider that who you seek out should be based, at least in part, on the type of stress you're experiencing; whereas some friends might be better at helping you with work-related stressors, others may be best suited for family-related stressors.

Of course, whoever you connect with, it's important that they don't make the situation worse. Some may be negative sources of energy, and hanging out with negative-minded people or those who monopolize the time you share with them talking only about themselves when you're experiencing burnout is likely to drag you down more and worsen your symptoms. So as important as it is to resist isolation and detachment when you're experiencing symptoms of burnout, it is equally as important to reduce your contact with negative influences in your life during this time. Similarly, if you have to work with or around a negative person, do your best to limit the amount of time you spend together.

Finally, burnout is a cunning adversary. In some cases, it unfortunately leads to the burning of bridges with friends, which is more likely to occur in the later stages of burnout. In other cases, the loss of friends may not be related to burnout at all, but rather to normal life changes, such as relocation or retirement.

The good news is that in a world as large and as electronically connected as ours, there are countless opportunities to establish new or reestablish old connections. Although some research suggests that face-to-face interactions are most beneficial in reducing stress, digital connections can also be beneficial (APA, 2022). And with social media being at our literal fingertips, it's relatively easy to reengage with friends you've lost contact with or make new ones. Video chats, calls, text messages, emails—regardless of how you do it, making and keeping those connections can not only improve your state of mind, but they also can bolster your resilience to future stress.

You also can increase your social connections by joining a cause, a class, or a like-minded community of peers, such as a sports, book, or social club; a skills- or interest-based class; a support group; or a community or professional organization. And don't get discouraged if you don't make friends immediately. Give it a chance. Relationships take time to develop.

The point is to rely on the strength of your friends to help you get through and past your weakest and most stressful times. Then, once you're on the other side, you can reciprocate. In fact, numerous studies have found that social reciprocity (relationships in which there is a mutual exchange of helping one another) is associated with greater life satisfaction, improved mood, less negative affect, and lower mortality rates (Brown, et al., 2003; Buunk, et al., 1993; Gleason, et al., 2003)—a good example of how paying it forward reaps benefits all around.


American Psychological Association (APA). Manage stress: Strengthen your support network. (October 21, 2022). (Manage stress: Strengthen your support network (

Brown, S. L., Nesse, R. M., Vinokur, A. D., Smith, D. M. (2003). Providing social support may be more beneficial than receiving it: Results from a prospective study of mortality. Psychol. Sci. 14, 320–327.

Buunk, B. P., Doosje, B. J., Jans, L. G. J. M, Hopstaken, L. E. M. (1993). Perceived reciprocity, social support, and stress at work: The role of exchange and communal orientation. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 65, 801–811.

Gleason, M. E. J., Iida, M, Bolger, N, Shrout, P. E. (2003). Daily supportive equity in close relationships. Pers. Soc. Psychol. Bull. 29, 1036–1045.

Løseth, G.E., Eikemo, M., Trøstheim, M., Meier, I.M., Bjørnstad, H., Asratian, A., Pazmandi, C, Tangen, V.W., Heilig, M., Leknes, S. (2022). Stress recovery with social support: A dyadic stress and support task. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 146:105949. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2022.105949.

Smith, M., Siegel, J., & Robinson, L. (Last updated or reviewed, February 24, 2023). Burnout Prevention and Treatment, (Burnout Prevention and Treatment -

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