13 Ways A Social Prescription Can Save Your Life

We are, unfortunately, a nation of pill poppers. Over the last few decades, Big Pharma has managed to convince millions of people that there is a pill for every ill, a drug — or two or three — to put everything right again. All you have to do is, as they say on those ubiquitous TV ads, ‘Speak with your doctor to see if — insert prescription name here — is right for you.’ Voila, problem solved!

But is it really? When you consider the often marginal or non-existent benefits, the toxic side effects, and, in some cases, the potential for addiction, you have to wonder if the “cure” is worse than the disease.   

Of course, there is a place for drugs that treat acute illnesses and sometimes save lives. But keeping ourselves on a perpetual drug drip as a way to ‘handle’ the more chronic day-to-day stuff is a wrong-headed and potentially dangerous,strategy. Here’s what I would I like to see instead: doctor-recommended ‘social prescriptions.’ Instead of first whipping out the prescription pad, doctors prescribe non-toxic, healing activities that promote health-supporting habits. 

By making social prescribing the first line of defense to help manage un-wellness, I believe that wellness can be built (or rebuilt) anywhere in the body. And, without creating new problems in the process, the all-too-often result of over-relying on pharmaceuticals. Here are a few thoughts on social prescribing — and how anyone can easily incorporate more of these health-boosting approaches, with or without a doctor’s support.  

So, what is social prescribing?

If you’ve never heard the term before, you’re not alone. “Social prescribing” is just now beginning to gain traction in the U.K., as the country’s National Health System looks for ways to continue to provide quality care and keep costs low, while also addressing mental as well as physical health issues. Across the pond, there’s a growing movement to empower doctors to refer at least some of their patients to social-prescribing healthcare professionals who can ‘write prescriptions’ primarily for non-drug, therapeutic treatment alternatives. For example, they might prescribe more time in nature, less screen time, or perhaps volunteering on a local project which gives back to the community, while simultaneously laying the groundwork for the patient to make more of those all-important, health-promoting social connections.

Social prescribing makes customized care easy.

One of the things I love about the idea of social prescribing is that it gives physicians more treatment options, more tools in the toolbox. Doctor (or social prescribing professional) and patient can work together to tailor a treatment plan to the patient’s particular circumstances, in contrast to the one-prescription-pill-fits-all approach.

Social prescribing enhances doctor-patient relationships.

Even in this age of impersonal ‘managed’ care, social prescribing invites both parties to engage, to have an actual conversation, versus the traditional M.D. one-way street. That’s only fitting in an age when patients have so much more access to health information and options. More collaboration on the front end means fewer side effects to manage on the back-end — which could wind up saving the healthcare system money in the long run. 

Social prescribing puts pills on pause.

Maybe the best thing about social prescribing is that it changes the doctor’s “drug-first” mindset. It reminds them that many patients are open to making the kind of changes in diet, exercise, and stress management that are the best health guarantee. Sure, not every patient is willing to put in the lifestyle work, but when the doctor brings those options up first, both doctor and patient know where they stand. 

Social prescriptions come in many forms.

Your prescription for maximum wellbeing? Not surprisingly, it’s got a lot to do with social connection, which is absolutely fundamental to sustaining health and keeping pharmaceuticals at bay (or at least to the bare minimum). While our current system doesn’t include a formal social prescribing system per se, you can talk to your doctor about creating your own pill-free plan to try instead. Here’s a menu of possibilities:

  1. Move – but with a twist, as in group classes to encourage the development of relationships and social connection, which combats the isolation of solo activities, which can exacerbate depressive tendencies.
  2. Love a pet – doing so will provide health-boosting effects: lowering stress and boosting cardiovascular health while ensuring you get out for exercise, rain or shine!
  3. Enjoy the outdoors – spending intentional time in verdant surroundings restores something of the original human condition: a calm body with an optimized immune system, and a brain in a state of restful awareness — instant mood boost!
  4. Be surprisingly kind – small, random acts of kindness – even it’s just an earnest ‘thank you’ to the guy who made your latte – are more than just a boon to the recipient; they create a momentary connection between you and the world at large, an instant of intimacy that supports you while bestowing compassion on another.
  5. Eat a healthy diet – to keep mood elevated, immunity strong and your body well-fed. A lousy diet will negatively impact every aspect of your health and set the stage for life-altering diseases.
  6. Eat communally – gathering around a table to share food with others is a simple but profound act of communion and community with others, which is an essential aspect of a well-rounded and happy life.
  7. Keep learning – a growing body of research shows that trying new things creates new neural pathways which can help prevent degenerative conditions like dementia while also giving your self-esteem a healthy boost.
  8. Volunteer serving meals at a soup kitchen is a beautiful way to give back to the community, and give you a sense of purpose and belonging.
  9. Get into group activities – such as hiking clubs, book clubs, knitting groups, even a silent meditation group — anything that gets one into a real, live social network and not one that only exists online.
  10. Explore music and the arts – exposure to them can lift spirits, ease loneliness, inspire creativity, and reduce neurological symptoms.
  11. Turn off your electronics – create an electronic sundown and shut down all screens a few hours before bed to encourage relaxation.
  12. Get your hands dirty in the garden – a regular habit of digging into the Earth is a great stress reliever.
  13. Commit to calming down – be it with a hot bath in the evenings, curling up with a good book, or spending some quiet time meditating, all are wonderfully relaxing ways to unwind, drug-free.