When I deliver in person retreats and workshops I increasingly notice how people long for connection. Connection to others, connection to themselves, and perhaps connection to something bigger than themselves. Moreover, we have seen the devastating effects of social isolation during the pandemic years.
It seems this is a phenomenon the western world over. According to the US Centre of Disease Control people with meaningful social connection have less stress and better sleep, leading to better overall health and a longer life, a better quality of life with healthier habits and behaviours. And the opposite is true, with social isolation causing increased risk of stroke, heart disease and dementia. The American Psychological Association talks of isolation increasing stress levels and thus a host of physical and mental health conditions. An Australian government supported health service offers advice on social connection as a means to reduce stress related illnesses. And the Mental Health Foundation in Northern Ireland advocates for reducing isolation and loneliness as a way to support mental health in our society.
Isolation increases stress levels
Unfortunately, we can feel isolated even when surrounded by people. This often happens to people in leadership roles, such as CEOs with no one to turn to talk about their daily stressors of finances, future strategies, staffing issues and more. Entrepreneurial SME founder directors can feel the same. Who can they talk to without exposing themselves or their organisation? We need peer to peer connection.
Neurophysiological research explains why connection is so important for our physical and emotional wellbeing. The neuroscientist Stephen Porges stresses that social connection is crucial for our survival. His research shows how the developmental needs of an infant are based on social interaction with our primary care giver. We are hard wired to need other people for our survival. Connection is of paramount importance to human beings from various perspectives, including neurophysiological, psychological, and social aspects.
Social connection is crucial for survival
It is important to note that we use both a self-regulating mechanism and co-regulating mechanism to keep ourselves functioning to the best of our ability. While self-regulation focuses on an individual’s ability to regulate themselves, co-regulation emphasizes the interpersonal dynamics and social support that contribute to effective emotional regulation. Both processes can complement each other and play a role in building and maintaining healthy relationships.
From a neurophysiological perspective, the need for solitude or social interaction can vary based on individual differences and situational factors. According to the psychologist C G Jung, some of us have an introverted nature, and others extroverted. Introverts recharge by turning inwards for solitude, extroverts by connecting with others. I suggest that we all do a bit of both if we consider our whole personality.
Solitude allows introspection, self-reflection, and deep thinking. It offers the opportunity to process emotions, thoughts and experiences leading to self-discovery and personal growth. It can afford rest and recovery, promoting stress reduction. Some individuals require solitude to enhance creativity and problem solving.
Meaningful social connection on the other hand has been shown to help regulate our autonomic nervous system. Safe meaningful connection is crucial. Thinking of the primary care giver example, we look to others to know when we are safe. A baby is startled by the wind, only to be reassured by their mother “it’s only the wind darling.” We reassure others through our words, actions, and expressions. We can also do the opposite if we are angry. But when we are comfortable interacting with others, we are more likely to be able to be creative, play, laugh, reduce our stress levels and support our holistic health.
Nurturing and maintaining positive social connections can lead to a happier, healthier and more fulfilling life.
Six benefits of positive social connection:
- Emotional well-being. Positive social connections provide emotional support, understanding, and validation, combating anxiety, depression, and other mental health concerns.
- Stress reduction. When we have trusted relationships and supportive networks, we have outlets for sharing our feelings, receiving advice, and seeking comfort in challenging times. This support can buffer the effects of stress and improve resilience.
- Physical health benefits. Research suggests that individuals with strong social ties have lower rates of mortality, reduced risk of chronic diseases and faster recovery times.
- Improved cognitive functioning. Social connections provide opportunities for learning, sharing knowledge and expanding our horizons. A problem shared is a problem halved.
- Sense of purpose and meaning. Meaningful relationship and a sense of belonging provide us with a sense of identity, support personal growth and enhance self-esteem. Through connection we can find support in pursuing our goals, passions, and values.
- Improved empathy and understanding towards others. By interacting with diverse individuals, we gain insights into different cultures, perspective and experiences fostering tolerance, compassion and a broader worldview. Connection bridges gaps and fosters a sense of unit and common humanity.
This article was first published in Northern Ireland Chamber Ambition magazine