If you were to plan the ultimate healthy Saturday, what would it look like? Maybe you’d wake up, grab a fresh cup of coffee and head to the gym. Then, after getting a good sweat in, you’d tackle Wegmans to buy healthy groceries, go home and do meal prep for the week. And maybe you’d end the day with a bath so lavish that it begs to be posted on Facebook. It doesn’t get much healthier than that, right? But if you are building your life exclusively around you — your individual workout, your customized diet, your self-care regimen — all while documenting it on your personal social media accounts, you may feel like something is missing. And you’d be right.
Humans need connectedness to survive. Studies show that heart patients, for example, with fewer than four people in their close support network have more than double the chance of cardiac death. And low quantity (or quality) of social ties has been linked with everything from high blood pressure and cancer to impaired immunity and inflammation in the body.
“It’s a basic human need, just like food and water” said Dr. Adam Duckett, physician and medical director at East Hill Family Medical in Auburn. “We can go a few days without water before we die and maybe a month without food before serious health problems develop. Emotional support is next, because if we don’t have regular doses of emotional support, we develop health problems."
Social relationships affect longevity. When someone isn’t getting enough connection with other people, their health and wellness can suffer in pretty extreme ways, including heart problems, getting sick more often and poor sleep. Data from over 148 studies on health outcomes and the social relationships of more than 300,000 men and women across the developed world determined that people with strong social connections had an average of a 50-percent higher chance of survival in the seven and a half years following the study than people with poor social ties. People who feel more connected to others have lower levels of anxiety and depression, higher self-esteem and greater empathy. In contrast, loneliness and social isolation are linked to poorer health, depression and increased risk for early death.
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Many regulatory systems in the body, particularly blood pressure, metabolism and stress hormones, have all shown to be affected by relationships and the quality of social interaction. Studies show that in stressful situations, a person’s blood pressure and heart rate will spike less if someone is with them. In one study, children who were able to speak to their mothers after a stressful situation experienced a rise in the levels of a neurotransmitter that decreases hormonal stress response compared to children who weren’t allowed to speak to their mothers. Furthermore, it has been found that loneliness is the main reason why people seek psychological counseling.
How to add more interpersonal connection to your life
The amount of interpersonal connection that a person needs really does vary from person to person. And although it’s a basic need, we don’t have a physical signal (like getting tired or hungry) that lets us know that we are low on connection. Fortunately, many people in the wellness community are creating spaces for connection, as it’s mentally beneficial for people to know they are not alone in their struggles. A perfect example here in our community is Nick’s Ride 4 Friends, an organization that helps support and uplift those struggling with addiction. But you don’t need to seek an outside organization or group to get the social connection you need. Inviting your friends over for dinner counts. So does volunteering or calling your best friend. But don’t just seek a friend — be a friend, too. Reach out to others who may be socially isolated. This time of year can be especially hard for people. These instincts to share, meet up and support each other might just be keeping you from getting sick.
Whether or not we feel loved and connected to others profoundly influences how we feel on a day-to-day basis. Social connection is just as important to our well-being as drinking enough water and getting enough exercise.
Our series continues next month, when we’ll explore the importance of maintaining a positive attitude.
For more information, or to schedule an appointment with Dr. Duckett, call East Hill Family Medical’s Adult Medicine Office at (315) 253-8477.