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Better off alone?

Happy Sunday! Thank you for bearing with my absence of a post last week. Today I wanted to look at the theme of loneliness, the feeling of being totally disconnected or left-out.

The impact of social media on the loneliness epidemic is so talked about that it has become somewhat of a cliché in the wellbeing circles to comment that the more technologically connected we are, the more disconnected we feel. There are so many theories as to why this is, but the value I would state is the quality of this time spent together, as well as the sense of overwhelm with the amount of 'socialisation' we experience in this day and age, all of this on top of the lack of physical presence.

One of the most common complaints that clients make when they come to therapy is that they feel like a 'misfit', like the 'odd-one-out' … the sad irony here is that, much like the outcome of the tale of the tower of Babel, we are all saying the same thing but in different ways.

As (the) Goo Goo Dolls sang:

'When everything feels like the movies

Yeah, you bleed just to know, you're alive

And I don't want the world to see me

'Cause I don't think that they'd understand

When everything's made to be broken

I just want you to know who I am'.

So what does a real connection mean and feel like? what defines quality in a connection? and why is physical closeness important? Today I will focus on the last point ...

Lets go back to the start …

When we look at childhood development we recognise that physical touch is crucial for the overall physical and emotional health of a child. In a 2013 paper by Uvnäs Moberg and Prime entitled 'Oxytocin effects in mothers and infants during breastfeeding', the authors' discuss how oxytocin is released during breastfeeding and their hypothesis is that this is to help encourage closeness between the breastfeeding parent and their child (helping to create a secure attachment for optimal developmental health), due to the feel-good sensations provided by the oxytocin itself. As they stated in the paper:

'Oxytocin stimulates well-being, it induces anti-stress effects, decreases sensitivity to pain, decreases inflammation and stimulates processes related to growth and healing. In addition, repeated exposure to oxytocin may give rise to long-term effects by influencing the production or function of other signalling systems' (Uvnäs Moberg and Prime, 2013,pp.201-202).

The release of oxytocin seems to be a reward for closeness here! And this is not a need that leaves us when we grow up. In fact, our nervous system is inextricably linked with our feeling states - so those sensory experiences such as hugging a dog or a friend or sharing a close moment with another person (physically) actually impacts our physiological health and the upkeep of our internal systems. Let's remember: our mind and body are one. As Forsell and Åström explore in their 2012 paper, 'Meanings of Hugging: From Greeting Behaviour to Touching Implications':

'As a rule, hugging may refer to physical sensations, a psychological sense of well-being, and often a positive emotional experience. In particular, the positive emotional experience gives rise to biochemical and physiological reactions, such as a higher magnitude of plasma oxytocin, norepinephrine, cortisol, and changes in blood pressure. In the last few years, researchers have commented that in addition to hugging, bodily touches of other kinds, such as hand-holding, also give rise to both positive psychological and physiological changes' (Forsell and Åström, 2012).

A problem shared ...

So, without getting too bogged down in the science of it all (there is a lot of information out there if you are interested!) what I'm trying to get at here is that, in the same way a balanced diet of food provides our body with vitamins, minerals and essential nutrients that we need to be physically well and fit, the science tells us that our body's reactions to physical contact with loved ones (human, canine or otherwise!) also promotes health reactions within us that promote health. We know as a general rule that if we aren't able to look after our health, side effects can include low-mood, feelings of boredom, loneliness, sadness and feelings of depression and anxiety. A lack of interaction (including simply seeing someone you interact with smile (Forsell and Åström , 2012)) can lead to a build in feelings of stress and discomfort in the body. In an article on the Cleveland Clinic website, they comment that scientific research is ongoing in understanding the link between low-oxytocin levels/ the role of oxytocin in: anxiety, addiction, anorexia, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

What this research tells us is that there is something of a self-perpetuating cycle in our absence of intimacy in everyday life. For many many people, not being around others leads to us feeling so 'low' that we are not able to go out and see people (which, if we go by the research, means we don't get what we need to help us to feel a bit better in the hormonal releases we get by seeing people).

The old adage that 'a problem shared is a problem halved' bares some truth here; Afterall, if being in the presence of another person or being hugged can reduce stress levels and help with healing the body, then there is something in the 'problem' or the feelings towards a problem that is reduced.

What I think?

Social media presents one element of our sense and experiencing of 'community', yet the part which largely deals with comfort and stress reduction comes in the form of physical closeness. So what I would recommend on this Sunday evening is to try and spend time around other people - family, friends, pets, and loved ones. Alternatively, as Cartwright, White and Clitherow explored in their 2018 paper 'Nearby Nature 'Buffers' the Effect of Low Social Connectedness on Adult Subjective Wellbeing over the Last 7 Days' that closeness to nature is also powerful in our subjective wellbeing (SWB). Whether you are off to hug a tree, a person, or a furry friend, remember that this process is important in helping to counteract feelings of low-mood. However, it is important for me to note here that not everyone is afforded with a loving family, a family or friends that are close by, or a living situation that is close to nature. There are many other ways to help counteract loneliness that does not just involve these things. But, I would say that even if you just get outside for a walk, open a window and pop your head out ... even just these little acts can help us to feel less disconnected.

Going back to the Goo Goo dolls' lyrics: to be human is to be connected, to our nature, to others - we are tactile, sensory beings, even if you are not all huggers ... when we look at an endless scrolling feed on social media platforms we are not 'feeling' in an embodied way that fully connects us to our sensory experience. So, when everything feels like the movies ... try meeting with people and going outside (did you get the rhyme?).

Disclaimer: I am not affiliated with or working with any of the authors listed in this blog post.

Additionally I don't aim here to dismiss difficulties in socialising or appeal only to able-bodied people - this short article simply presents one angle.


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