The Downfalls of Isolation
... and the undeniable benefits of connection to all things.
Humans are social creatures. This is undeniable. If we look through the evolutionary lens, we begin to understand the power of connection or ‘tribe’. Cooperation lies at the heart of the success of human society. If we look around it isn’t hard to see how social interaction is important to how we live our life. From our families, to friend groups, community groups, sporting teams even to governments, social interaction is the common thread that we build upon.
We have literally evolved this way. It is an adaptive response that is so beneficial to survival and reproduction (the basis of evolution) and has been this way for hundreds of thousands of years. Just as we have physical needs (food, water, shelter), we also have psychological or emotional needs (connection). We have a felt sense of how important it is to relate to others. The basis of compassion and of empathy comes from how we connect to the feelings of others. In an evolutionary sense; being part of a group is safe, being separate is not safe. Being isolated or separated from the group means you were more likely to become prey, perhaps dinner for a saber-tooth tiger. This triggered the stress response, adrenaline and cortisol released to try and get us back to the safety of the group. Now although you likely aren’t at risk of being eaten by an animal anymore, we still see much the same response to being isolated today.
What happens when we are isolated?
Social connection is so critical to humans that the lack of it is catastrophic for our health. Numerous studies have now measured the frightening effects of social isolation on humans. A large study conducted by the American Cancer Society linked social isolation with a higher risk of death than all other causes. Research has found that lonely people are at a much higher risk of cancer, heart disease and Alzheimers and it was shown that lonely adults are 25% more likely to die prematurely. Elderly people who are lonely have a much higher death rate than those who are socially connected.
Prolonged social isolation has debilitating effects on mental health and can lead to a vast array of behavioural changes. In studies done on mice, a neuropeptide called tachykinin was discovered to be the source of behaviour change. A period of 2 week isolation led to increased aggressiveness, persistent fear and hypersensitivity to threatening stimuli. Although this study was done in mice, humans have the same signalling system. These studies displayed how tachykinin is directly linked to social isolation and acts globally across the brain to change behavioural responses. The ill-effects of social isolation cannot be overlooked, as they cause widespread disruption of physical and emotional health.
The power of connection
What’s important to note about loneliness is that, by definition, it is perceived. It’s “perceived” because someone can feel totally alone surrounded by a group of people, or can feel connected and supported even when by themselves. Connection is the antidote to loneliness, and there is power and beauty in human connection, but it is not the only source. What’s interesting to note is that most of the research indicates that it doesn’t have to be connection to people. It can be a sense of connection to a pet, to a place in nature, to an activity or hobby.
People who feel connected to others have lower levels of depression and anxiety. It is also shown they tend to have higher self-esteem, are more trusting and have more empathy for others. So how do we feel more connected? It starts with connection to self. So many people are disconnected from their own bodies and emotions. How can we expect to connect fully with others if we can’t do so with ourselves? Connection starts by listening to our own inner world and feelings, being fully conscious and aware of what you are experiencing (physically, mentally and emotionally) helps us to tune in, initially to ourselves, eventually to others.
Let’s look at some simple strategies to enhance the sense connection in our lives:
Connection to Self
Taking time in the morning or evening to simply write, without intention, without critique is a beautiful way to allow thoughts and emotions to move. Putting it down on paper makes it a little more palpable. Try setting a timer for 5 minutes and just write. Don’t re-read it. The idea is just to let a stream of consciousness flow through your hand.
Giving thanks is a powerful way to remind yourself of the good things in life. Maybe it’s something small that happened today, maybe it’s something you remember, a person, place or event. Acknowledging and cultivating a sense of gratitude around the things in your life is a beautiful way to foster this positive emotion.
Connection to Others
Act of Kindness
Do something nice for someone. Without expectation of anything in return. Do it for the simple fact that it feels good to do nice things for people. Maybe it’s your partner, maybe it's a stranger. I guarantee you will feel inherently good afterwards.
An old friend, an old colleague, someone you have fallen out of contact with. Send them a message. Ask them how they are. Think of times spent together and remember fond memories. Remember we all thrive on a sense of connection, maybe reaching out and saying hello is just what that person needs to remind them of connection.
Connection to Nature
Sunrise / Sunset
These two times of day are unique. They tune us back into the subtle but evident cycles of nature. There is a specific wavelength of light at the start and close of the day that creates specific responses in our brain and nervous system. Simply sit and enjoy the birth of a new day, or the end of a chapter. Bask in the beauty of nature.
What better way to connect to the earth than to be in contact with it. So many people live insulated from the natural environment, either through shoes or clothes or vehicles. But that isn’t how we evolved! There is some very interesting research regarding connecting to the earth and inflammation and the immune system. So kick your shoes off and feel the earth, notice if you feel any different.
Connection to Your Body Through Breath
Now I couldn’t go a whole blog post without mentioning … the breath! In my mind, and in my teachings, breath is the ultimate connector. Breath is the connection between mind and body. Breath is the connection to self, others and nature. Use your breath to amplify the sense of connection that you feel; whether it be to emotions that you are experiencing (breathe through them), to people around you (breathe with them), or to connect to the (in)visible world of nature in the trillions upon trillions of molecules that we connect to with every single breath we take. Breathing with intention is a powerful way to create connection. It amplifies the experience and enhances the power of presence.
Social isolation can be truly catastrophic for our physical, mental and emotional well-being. But the antidote is connection. Don’t overlook the power of connecting to yourself, to others and to the ‘something else’ that exists out there. The more connected you are, the more supported you are. I hope you can use some of the simple interventions mentioned in this blog to enhance your connection.
Want to connect with your breath and with others?
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