While we take a holistic approach to wellness, our expertise is in nutrients—magnesium, zinc, omega-3s, and so on. But for the sake of this blog’s topic, let’s extend the definition of nutrient beyond just micronutrients, to something that nourishes us towards living a better life, thus extending the definition to include social connection.
It might surprise you that social connection and a sense of belonging is actually an essential aspect of our wellbeing rather than just a ‘nice to have’, When we take a deeper dive into our evolutionary history, it makes a great deal of sense however—in fact, social connection is one of the reasons we’re still alive as a species today.
We’ll also be digging into the mental and physical benefits of social connection and community, and some practical strategies around building and maintaining a sense of community even while we’re staying in the safety of our own homes to stop the spread of Covid-19.
Firstly, let’s define social connection so that we’re all on the same page—we’re classifying it as the subjective experience of feeling close to and a sense of belongingness with others.
Social Connection as an Essential Nutrient
Our bodies are very smart—they know exactly what they need at all times, and they let us know. We don’t always know how to listen to what it’s asking for.
When we’re lacking in magnesium, our bodies communicate this through restless legs, trouble relaxing or getting to sleep, unexplained fatigue or lethargy .
When we’re lacking in sleep, our bodies communicate this through feeling tired, brain fog, even feeling more hungry than usual.
Similarly, our beings know if we’re lacking social connection and a sense of belonging—we feel lonely, maybe a bit lost, disconnected.
Where does this come from? Well, all of the things we need stem from evolutionary means of survival, and the need for social connection is just the same.
Humans are tribal by nature.
Our survival depended on having community. Feeling a sense of belonging provided safety, security and comfort. Our nervous systems are finely tuned to establish and maintain connections
Feeling alone, or lonely, taps into our caveman brain that understood isolation as a very real threat to survival, and that safety is found within a group.
We perceive threats to connection as threats to our safety because we need connection in order to survive. Being separated from our group or being unable to establish or maintain close connections can be experienced by the nervous system as danger. Especially true for people with trauma, who have nervous systems particularly attuned to signs of danger.
Inviting in compassion
Understanding why we feel so strongly about our social connections—it represents not just people, but in fact on a very primal level, our safety and survival— opens up the doors to compassion around these perhaps complex feelings.
So, at the time of writing, we’re currently on Day 11 of a nationwide lockdown meaning we stay within our homes for a minimum of 28 days with the same people in our ‘bubble’. Very suddenly, our baseline social routines were thrown out the window.
If you’re feeling a bit socially deprived at the moment—a bit ‘needy’ even—understand that your body might be experiencing the drop in social connection as a threat to your safety. Our primal nature is still alive and well inside us—it hasn’t quite caught up to our modern day lifestyles.
Knowing that our body understands social connection as essential for survival the same way it understands food and sleep are essential for survival allows us to invite in some compassion about these feelings the change in social routines might be bringing up in us.
If we didn’t drink water for three days, we wouldn’t feel guilty for feeling thirsty, we’d understand it’s a natural response to feeling deprived of something we need to stay alive and well.
Much the same as we wouldn’t beat ourselves up for feeling tired if we’d only had two hours sleep the night before. And we encourage you to understand that feeling lonely, is also a completely natural response.
Everything is interconnected.
Meeting our physiological needs such as adequate and quality sleep, food—micro and macronutrients, exercise and movement, hydration all support our health and sense of wellbeing, meeting our social needs does too.
Research shows that loneliness is a contributing factor to poor health including lowered immunity, increased susceptibility to disease, and compromised mental wellbeing.
On the other hand, a strong sense of community, belonging and social connection improves immunity, boosts mental health, supports faster recovery from illness, and can even increase longevity by up to 50%.
Social connectedness—or lack thereof—has a feedback loop on our emotional and physical well-being which can either be positive or negative.
It all comes down to stress.
“No matter what kind of stress we experience, our body perceives it the same way.”
Stress is one of the most significant compromisers of our health. So really it makes sense that a lack of social connection correlates with reduced health outcomes—when community is essential for our survival, then a lack thereof would mean danger which would trigger a stress response—fight or flight mode activated! A chronic state of stress is of huge detriment to our health.
And so what do about it?
Firstly, meeting our primal brain where it’s at. We’re not going to be able to overdrive our innate instinct to social creatures, and so to experience wellness, we need to learn to work with our body and its needs, rather than against them.
Acceptance of social connection as being of equal importance to our wellness as the food we eat, and the sleep we get. Quality time with quality people is an essential ingredient in our wellness recipe.
4 Ways you can nourish social connectedness and a sense of belonging:
Meet your own needs first
You know the old adage—put your own gas mask on first. When we’re happy and healthy humans, we’re in a much better position to be quality friends and to nurture the cycle of uplifting and supportive relationships.
Share challenges with others and ask for help when you need it
While we live our own lives in various ways, it’s ultimately the shared feelings and challenges through which we can bond. Challenge is inevitable through life, and often we can feel alone when we go through tough times. Not talking about challenges we face affirms this false belief that people don’t understand what we’re going through. We don’t have to do life (and all its challenges!) alone.
Celebrate wins and successes
On the flipside to sharing challenges with others to nurture social connectivity, also share successes and wins you encounter! They don’t need to be major accomplishments by any means, but sharing wins, and also celebrating the wins of others deepens our understanding of others, nurtures compassion and helps to form bonds and a sense of belonging—especially when paired with the previous point around sharing challenges, so that you know what people have worked through to reach their achievement.
What’s the best way to cheer yourself up? Do something to help someone else. Harkening back to our community-based survival tendencies, helping others creates a positive feedback loop. When the rest of the tribe or community is thriving, it increases your own chances of survival and security, so it’s in your best interest to help someone out!
So even while we’re physically distanced from our friends and normal social routines, bring some compassion to your social needs, understand that they’re heightened in favour of your safety and survival, and embrace the creative means that might need to be explored in order to nurture your sense of belonging.