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home : health : health January 16, 2019

12/11/2018 11:54:00 AM
The power of connection
Audry Van Houweling, PMHNP Columnist

The holiday season can be a mixed bag of emotions. In the best case, it is filled with joy and merriment; however, feelings of grief, stress, and loneliness are also common. In either case, what makes the season most meaningful for most of us is celebrating the connections we share with those we love.

In these digitalized times, establishing and maintaining social connections that allow for face-to-face contact has become more challenging. It has become the norm - especially in our younger generations - that social "connection" is most commonly mediated through a device or screen and "everyone is doing it" so it creates its own unique social pressure to follow suit.

While our digitalized social connections and tribes may have merit, they cannot substitute for genuine face-to-face human contact. Furthermore, the profiles of individuals we are "connected" to are most generally filtered and edited facades that often do not allow for authentic relationships. We too create facades for ourselves of which we may feel a pressure to live up to, which can limit our opportunities to let our guard down and display emotional vulnerability.

Altogether, the loss of face-to-face contact can create a void of social isolation, which I believe is one of the great public health concerns of our time.

At our core we are social beings. Having a tribe or community has evolutionary roots in being central to our survival, defense, and welfare. Amid individualism and modernism, close connections have withered for many of us.

Social integration or the frequency of which we have face-to-face social contact with others - from the grocery clerk to our spouse - has in fact been found to be a major social determinant of health and longevity. In reviewing over 148 studies and 308,849 middle-age participants, researchers from Brigham Young University and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (2010) found that close interpersonal relationships in addition to social integration were the primary factors predicting longevity even superseding substance use, exercise, and diet.

Face-to-face contact has genuine neurochemical and physiological benefits that cannot be mimicked via social media, text messaging, or other forms of digitalized forms of communication. Eye contact, a good handshake, and high fives all release oxytocin otherwise known as the "bonding hormone." Oxytocin can reduce cortisol - our primary stress hormone. Dopamine is also released, which promotes feelings of reward and pleasure. Additionally, face-to-face contact provides opportunities for empathy far more than via social media or texting, where you are removed from the emotional consequences of your communication. In other words, you have more reign to be a schmuck without having to bear witness to the sadness, tears, fear, or anger you may inspire.

Our digital devices have also become great distractions, and might I say, time-suckers that allow us to procrastinate and postpone confronting emotional struggle. They have also in many ways become the modern-day pacifier for children (and adults), and the preferred solution for awkwardness and conversational pauses. Basically, they have thwarted emotional resilience and the art of conversing.

Given that social media and device addiction is, in my opinion, very legitimate, we all must be a bit more intentional about giving ourselves opportunities for face-to-face interactions. Schedule routine coffee visits with a friend, join a club, take a class, go on date nights with your spouse, or simply surround yourself with human energy at the gym, mall, or local park. And remember, your smartphone is not your best friend.

Wishing everyone a safe and healthy holiday season. Give yourself the gift of connection, allow yourself a digital detox, and soak in the beauty of the human spirit.

Happy holidays!

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