Remedy for the Holiday Blues: Nurturing Connection & Your Brain

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By Anastasia Dimitropoulou and Annemarie Schumacher

The holiday season is around the corner, a time during which many of us spend time with our families and friends. Nurturing these human connections isn’t just for fun and to exchange presents – there is a health benefit too. Quality connections and time with loved ones increases both our physical and mental health.

We are more disconnected than ever before

We have access to so much information today compared to the past, that the tendency is for more “screen time” and less “in-person” time.

People are using social media so much, which results in spending much less time on interpersonal interactions. When people are not connected to others, there is less kindness, tolerance, and collaboration, which can lead to loneliness.

 

Why do we need connections?

In some Western cultures, we tend to think that connecting with others is not that important. Studies from rodents to humans, however, suggest that we suffer when our social bonds are threatened.

As Matthew Lieberman, a professor and Social Cognitive Neuroscience lab Director at UCLA, describes in his book Why our Brains are Wired to Connect, “our brains react to social pain and pleasure in much the same way as they do to physical pain and pleasure.”

 

 

Whether we like it or not, we are wired in a way that our wellbeing depends on our connections with others. It’s these connections that make the human species; we are basically cells with trillions of connections constantly communicating with each other. All the internal connections together with the external connections to others, to our environment, to nature, and to our thoughts are important for our wellbeing.

The need for connections with other people is a natural process. The part of the brain associated with the feelings of social pain or loss is the same as for physical pain, explaining partly why emotional loss is as painful.

 

Loneliness, and the mental and physical benefits of connections

When we connect to others, our bodies release the “bonding” chemical oxytocin, which in turn triggers the release of the “happy chemical” serotonin. This creates an enjoyable experience in our entire system. When oxytocin and serotonin levels increase, this may help counter stress, ease anxiety, and potentially even reduce the risk of depression.

This could partly explain why loneliness and isolation have been associated with an increased risk of depression and even earlier death and heart disease. Socially isolated and lonely adults, without a quality support group have a 26% higher risk of death compared to those who have a quality social network. Loneliness (but not social isolation) has also been associated with a higher risk of dementia later on in life.

Quality relationships have a big survival benefit. Heart disease is the major reason why lonely people die more often, because loneliness creates stress and is associated with higher blood pressure and blood sugar.

In addition, serotonin is also believed to play a role in regulating digestion and appetite, sleep and memory. By connecting more, we can help boost our overall mental and physical health.

Allan Luks, in his book The Healing Power of Doing Good explains this biological signal as the “helper’s high.” It activates the same parts of the brain responsible for pleasure by releasing endorphins (natural opiates in our body): dopamine and serotonin. Dopamine and serotonin are neurotransmitters associated with “feeling good.” This can explain how kindness can induce happiness without needing any other drugs. And kindness leads to connection, because when someone “recognizes” and supports another person, the other person feels valued and hence a connection is established.

 

Social support and associated health outcomes

Social support is an established concept in health psychology and other social sciences where its link to various health outcomes has been widely documented. There are various types of social support, the main ones being practical, emotional, and structural support.

Various studies have highlighted the numerous health outcomes related to social support, and myriad psychological mechanisms have been used to explain this link. Three main mechanisms have been outlined.

Firstly, social support affects emotions in a positive way, which in turn has a beneficial effect on health outcomes. Secondly, social support can also influence one’s behaviour improving adherence to pharmacotherapy (particularly in chronic diseases) or behavior change (e.g. smoking cessation). Thirdly, in some cases, social support has been observed to have a direct impact on a disease or its risk indicators. For instance, practical social support has been observed to improve medication adherence such as in the case of diabetes.

 

Why is sometimes difficult to make connections?

Many times we are afraid to make connections, because whether or not we realize it, our brain is in survival mode. Our brain needs to feel safe before we can connect, but we can train our brain to be regulated and connected by activating our prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex regulates emotions, creates rational thought, and allows us to feel calm. We can teach it to override our fearful brain, and embrace vulnerability (see video of Brene Brown, below). When we can start to feel more in control of our brain’s reactions, we can connect more often to ourselves, each other, and the world around us.

 

How to make more meaningful connections to others?

1. By expressing gratitude every day

In order to get rid of our fear, we can train our prefrontal cortex by practicing gratitude, which strengthens the rational and thoughtful capacities of the brain. Being thankful reduces the feelings of being threatened and stressed.

When the brain’s stress center deactivates, it also reduces our stress steroid hormone produced by our adrenal glands, cortisol. When our stress response is down, it facilitates the parts of our brain that promote connectivity.

2. By smiling and laughing together

When we smile or laugh with another person, we instantly feel more connected. Research shows that the premotor cortex of our brain is activated when we see another person smile, which triggers our own smiling muscles.

3. By volunteering

With the holiday season and the new year just around the corner, there is no time like the present to practice connecting with others. Reach out to friends and family who might be lonely, and consider helping those in need.

If you are alone and feel lonely, giving by volunteering at your favorite organization can benefit you to create some great connections and is also important both for your physical and mental health.

4. Seeking personal contact

The benefits of personal contact cannot be replaced by virtual reality. We should make it a point to connect with people on a face to face basis and also appreciate the micro-moments of love. The latter have been described by Fredrickson in her book Love 2.0 and refer to moments of connection with people we encounter in our day-to-day life that are consciously experienced and appreciated. For example, a shared joke with the cashier at the supermarket or a smile exchanged with a passer-by.

 

Together, we can make sure 2019 ends well and 2020 is off to the best start possible.

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