Having close relationships is important to our wellbeing, helping us to be healthier and more resilient. Further, according to recent research, even superficial encounters with people in our everyday lives can make us happier and bring a sense of belonging within a community.
If that’s the case, then why would we avoid social contact?

A new paper published in Emotion aimed to find out. Researchers studied the everyday lives of 88 college students making use of a cell phone app called StudentLife. The app gathered information about activity in real time without the participants needing to input data themselves.

Over one month, the app recorded the number of face-to-face conversations the students had each day and how long those conversations lasted, providing an overall social contact score. It also measured sleep patterns, activity levels, and time spent at home—all things that could, potentially, affect social contact. At random times each day, participants were prompted to rate how stressed they were on a scale of 1–16. At the end of the month, researchers analysed the data.

The result? Stress levels turned out to be a crucial predictor of social contact: People who felt higher levels of stress one day had less social contact the next, regardless of how much time they slept, moved about, or stayed home.

Gender and personality also didn’t play as much of a role as we might think they would.

According to co-author Meghan Meyer, this finding confirms something that had been seen in animal studies—but not with people.

“Psychologists have thought for a while that something like this might happen to people under stress. But it’s been really hard to measure how much people are actually interacting with other people in their everyday lives,” she says. “Capitalizing on people’s cell phones to naturalistically and organically measure their actual social interactions was really helpful to uncovering this pattern.”

Why Might This Be?

Meyers says that it makes intuitive sense. We may feel an instinct to withdraw under stress, perhaps because conversations with others take energy or we may just want to rest.

It’s a bit worrying, she adds, because pulling away from our social networks could actually worsen the stress, creating a vicious cycle.

“Being socially integrated is protective of one’s wellbeing,” she says. “We need to interact with our social network members for good mental health. But if when we’re stressed, we’re withdrawing from them, that could backfire.”

Who Pulls Away?

Interestingly, participants socialised less after feeling stressed no matter how generally social they were to begin with. This means extroverts and introverts withdrew equally, implying other factors besides personality may be at play.

Meyers offers a possible explanation: Perhaps we all evolved to withdraw when alarmed as a survival strategy, as when early humans encountered predators and hiding helped save them.

Though modern-day stressors generally aren’t as dangerous as being chased by a predator, our nervous systems can’t distinguish this.

Meyers and her colleagues also didn’t find a gender difference—women and men both restricted social contact the day after feeling stressed.

That was more surprising, as some past research suggests women tend to seek solace from stress in the company of others more than men.

“These individual differences didn’t matter. We were taking them into account and still seeing this,” she says. “That’s pretty compelling.”

How To Deal With Stress

This study provides some interesting nuance to the research on stress and social relationships. While many of us may believe we seek out others when stressed, these findings suggest that may not be the case. Instead, we may be overestimating our tendency to reach out to others, potentially missing out on opportunities for social support.

Meyer also believes there are potential applications for the StudentLife app that could benefit students. If they used the app regularly, they could become more aware of their socialising patterns and recognise signs of stress, like social withdrawal or disrupted sleep. Alternatively, colleges themselves might use the app to identify people who’ve suddenly withdrawn from social contact and may need attention.

“Stress is often a precursor to more serious mental health conditions, like depression and anxiety disorders, and we know that these often emerge in college students,” says Meyers. “If cell phones could detect things on the fly—like, someone withdrawing from their social network—students could be pinged and asked if they’re feeling OK or be reminded of mental health resources on campus.”

Encouraging people to reach out to close friends or confidants when stressed might also be a good strategy, says Meyer.

Though her study didn’t really look at who students interacted with, nor did it find that socialising more one day reduced stress the next day, it’s likely that having warm interactions with fewer, more intimate friends could reduce a person’s stress more than participating in a lot of superficial conversations.

“Anecdotally, it makes sense that when you’re seeking support around stress, you won’t be going to an eight-hour party,” she says. “Instead of having one of your more socially active days, you may just need a really targeted conversation to get the help you need.”