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Social Connection and Survival


Having worked in the health industry for almost 20 years, I have been exposed to many forms of health care. The reductionist models of health which separate people into ever smaller parts never made much sense to me, so I celebrated the increasing awareness and acceptance of the more holistic mind-body-spirit approaches. However, even in these models, the focus was very much on one's own sense of integration WITHIN, and there still seemed to be some pieces of the puzzle missing. One of those parts, I came to realise, is the importance of community.

I set out to learn more about how and why people interact and form bonds and connections with one another. What I discovered was the intrinsic biological roots that unconsciously drive us towards relationships in an effort to feel that we are safe.

Studies show that social isolation increases stress hormones, inflammation, heart disease, depression and anxiety and significantly reduces the lifespan. Our bodies actually depend on meaningful relationship in order to remain healthy, which means that the trauma of social neglect is indeed a deeply physical experience. Sadly, in our society people often walk away from someone who is already experiencing extreme vulnerability; we need only acknowledge the stigma and discrimination that surrounds people with mental illness to see how prominent this is.

"They could have really helped me, but instead they pushed me further and further away until I wasn't their problem anymore."

I have witnessed again and again, the hipocracy of people turning their backs on someone in need, whilst whispering between themselves that that same person, whom they have just abandoned 'really needs to get some help'. For the person in suffering, it seems near impossible to reach out and ask for help when those nearest and dearest to them simply up and left.

"I had 2 really close friends at the time. Once my illness became really obvious one friend cut chase as quickly as she could and I haven't seen her since. The other friend came and spoke with me, wrapped her arms around me and told me that everything would be ok. She came with me to appointments, gathered resources to help herself, set some really clear boundaries and we learnt together how to move forward. That friend literally saved my life."

The overwhelming grief and intense agony that we feel when we lose a friend or family member whether through death, separation or abandonment, is so extreme as it triggers parts of the brain that are connected with our survival. If we are already highly stressed and traumatised, any additional threat can literally be the difference between life and death. As Matthew D Lieberman states in his book "Social- Why Our Brains are Wired to Connect";

"Our brains evolved to experience threats to our social connections in much the same way they experience physical pain. By activating the same neural circuitry that causes us to feel physical pain, our experience of social pain helps ensure (our) survival"

In my quest for radical holism, I believe that it is crucial that we learn to intervene at the level of social engagement in order to promote both physical and psychological well-being. Friends, family, colleagues and community organisations all have a key role to play in the ability for an individual to recover from adversity and challenge. Whilst no one can do the hard work for anyone else and it is essentially up to individuals to enact a plan of recovery, it is also our collective responsibility to provide what we can in the form of love, care and practical resources that can soften the jaggered edges of reality and create a scaffolding of support. It is completely normal to need time alone, time to be quiet and still and we certainly do not have to be with people all of the time. My hope is simply that we begin to honour the role of community as being just as important as our need for food and shelter and perhaps to lean in where we used to lean out.

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