Whilst volunteering I met some amazing young people, just like me, from all around the world. Volunteering abroad often means you’re living and working in a group 24/7 together. Getting to know everyone, I was surprised how many had struggled with panic attacks, social anxiety, OCD and depression back home.
It wasn’t something that came up straight away, but a few weeks in, as no one wanted to be labelled or treated differently.
The oddest thing was, that if they hadn’t said anything I don’t think anyone would have noticed. I asked a couple of girls who said that whilst volunteering things hadn’t been as bad as back home. That somehow, maybe their focus on helping others helped them.
I looked into this and there have been some studies which appear to back up what they said, that volunteering is good for mental health. Whether assisting at a fundraising event, charity shop, helping the elderly or volunteering abroad, it looks like it could really make a difference and change someone’s life.
Here are the top five ways in which volunteering appears to help our bodies and minds:
1. Increased social awareness
It has been documented that both mental and physical health is improved by social interaction. Volunteering often involves working and communicating with others. Usually, jobs are done in pairs or in a small team all working together, decreasing loneliness felt by building bonds with others.
Organisations often find volunteers make friends for life and plan second trips together. Visiting and volunteering in a new country or meeting up on each other’s home turf.
2. Mental health benefits
Volunteering improves mental health in an infinite number of ways, not just from the feel-good factor we get when helping others. Volunteering has been proven to improve our mental state, it makes us more emotionally stable.
The symptoms of mental illnesses can be decreased by volunteering. This may be because of an increased sense of purpose, people with low self-esteem have noted that through volunteering they have felt greater confidence, feelings of self-worth and it has helped them develop a higher self-esteem.
3. It reduces stress levels
Volunteers experience a calmer state of mind. A Gallup poll interviewed 100,000 Americans and found that 40 percent of them felt stressed the day before being interviewed, compared to only 34 percent who had volunteered in the past year.
Researchers suggest that those who volunteer experience a renewed perspective on their own life, exchanging the negatives and challenges for a glass half full outlook.
Studies show that when volunteering with dogs especially, people become much calmer. Charities such as Paws for Life and Dawgs in Prison take advantage of these benefits by taking dogs to people in need to stroke and cuddle.
War veterans with PTSD are often recommended to volunteer at an animal shelter to benefit from mans’ best friend. Working with dogs is also proven to help addicts and inmates commit to their rehabilitation.
According to Doctors R S. Sneed and S Cohen, those who volunteer are 40 percent less likely to develop high blood pressure, compared to those who did no volunteering.
4. Physical health benefits
Many adults in the UK spend more than seven hours a day sitting which can cause many health issues such as increased blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat and high cholesterol levels. Nearly all volunteering involves physical activity of prolonged standing, walking and increased mobility compared to our sedentary lives at home. The physical demand of volunteering decreases our chances of becoming overweight, along with lessening the onset of different diseases.
Endorphins are released during physical activity, which trigger a positive feeling in the body. They also diminish the perception of pain, which can be magnified by depression. According to one study, people who volunteer over 100 hours a year are some of the healthiest people in the UK.
5. It’s a career asset
Whilst volunteering, people are often asked to do new things they may have never done before. Building a school and teaching are two traditional forms of volunteering, these jobs often require no prior experience, which means that volunteers learn and develop new skills in these areas.
Even without learning a new skill, existing skills are developed upon whilst volunteering. And there are often opportunities for taking on more responsibilities if you want to. Within a couple of weeks on any project, I was always doing far more than I thought I ever could on my first day.
With more options for affordable volunteering abroad than ever before, now that cheaper organisations have emerged, it has become a more viable option even for the unemployed! Those that have experienced an extended period without work often find it hard to get back into a routine, volunteering can help with this in a relaxed and fun environment and making great friends in the process. By putting away a little each month and finding the right company, anyone should be able to plan a life-changing trip.
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