We all go in phases where we often hang out with friends or family. Then we go for periods without seeing many people — it’s perfectly normal. But when you withdraw yourself from social connection for an extended period of time, you put yourself in jeopardy of health issues.
As it turns out, research in the past years suggests that our relationships appear to impact our health quite significantly. A strong social connection may improve motor skill retention, longevity, cancer survival rates, immune function, and memory. And the opposite is true as well about the general feeling of loneliness or lack of relationships. They are responsible for a higher risk for Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, and health deterioration in general.
Why does social connection matter?
Our brains are quite interesting things. For several decades, scientists believed that the brain was fixed and could not change after a certain age. But now, studies have proven that the brain can grow and change well into adulthood through a process called neuroplasticity. It’s the brain’s ability to adapt and change throughout one’s lifespan as a result of interactions with our environment. This dynamic process allows us to learn from and adapt to different experiences.
In an experiment done in rats, social isolation can actually turn off genes related to the neuroplasticity of the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus, the areas of the brain that control social and cognitive behavior, expression or personality, and regulation of emotions.
We’ve all probably heard of the hormone oxytocin, better known as the “love hormone.” Perhaps a more accurate description of it should be the ‘social’ hormone. Studies have shown that being surrounded by other people actually increases the release of oxytocin to help increase pleasure and promote socialization. This actually triggers a release of endogenous cannabinoids — compounds that play a role in mood, among other body processes. So as it turns out, a good laugh can leave us feeling as high as a kite!
But the release of oxytocin can also help us to become more in tune with others through their emotional cues and body language, almost like determining friends from foes and forming an appropriate response. Studies in animals have shown that oxytocin can help to mediate certain types of neuroplasticity, especially when sensory deprivation is an issue. There is an inherent “knowingness” within the human body that requires the brain to be able to make new connections.
Humans are hard-wired to be social
In a study conducted by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, he applied the logic of primate cliques to humans, stating that primates exhibit tight-knit social groups of varying sizes as a means of socializing. They aren’t randomized, however, but rather are associated with the size of the neocortex region of the brain; the larger the neocortex region, the larger the social group.
Interestingly enough, Dunbar applied the principle to humans, figuring that we have a mean group size of around 150, encompassing a sort of ‘community’ and an intimate circle of around 12. Why these numbers specifically? These averages are based on predictions from primate neocortex size, which were then compared to studies on observed human group sizes. But any higher and too much ‘social grooming’ is needed to maintain the group. Overstepping these numbers also has the potential to increase stress levels.
So as it stands, the human brain is wired for social connection. And it becomes a necessary component of achieving optimal health.
The chemistry behind face-to-face interaction
Taking a phone call and texting to communicate with someone is one thing, but a face-to-face social connection is a whole other. When we experience physical interaction, our bodies react in a way that they don’t when we experience non-physical interaction via social media and technology.
Here’s what happens when we experience physical interaction.
When we interact with someone face to face, our body senses their presence through vibrations, which are picked up by Pacinian corpuscles — the largest mechanoreceptors present in humans that sense pressure and vibrations to let us know of physical contact.
This face-to-face social interaction fortifies the parasympathetic (rest and digest) response and engages the vagus nerve, which helps to improve vagal tone and counteract stress responses associated with the fight or flight mechanism. Stimulation of the vagus nerve also helps to reduce stress, anxiety, anger, and inflammation through activation of the relaxation response associated with the parasympathetic nervous system.
The parasympathetic nervous system drives the release of oxytocin, which fortifies our innate response to form close-knit bonds and the desire to care for one another. The release of oxytocin also triggers the release of serotonin within the body, giving us that happy feeling and the ability to form positive social connections with other people.
So while social media may be beneficial for facilitating a community, it lacks the effects of real face-to-face physical communication, which triggers a whole different cascade of chemical release in the body.
How to achieve social wellness
1. Give more than you receive from others
You often hear that it’s better to give love than receive, but this cliche statement is backed by science. When we give, it energizes us and makes us feel good. This behavior helps to add to your sense of self-esteem and worthiness rather than depleting it. By giving to others, we leave feeling as though we have been fulfilled in some way or another, and often leads to the sense of having gained something simply by giving to another individual.
2. Express gratitude
Gratitude is one of the easiest ways to appreciate what life has to offer you. Not only does it make you feel more connected to yourself, but it also helps you connect to others. It improves the empathy we feel towards others and the situations they are going through.
3. Altruism: helping others is helping ourselves
Have you ever given advice to someone who is undergoing a tough situation or is severely stressed out? Who would’ve known that by helping someone else, we could also help ourselves? Being selfless and making altruistic personal sacrifices may bring good karma to you in the sense of “what goes around comes around” and help to increase the social support we receive.
4. Practice self-care
This includes ensuring your basic needs are met (sleep, hygiene, healthy eating, exercise, etc.), as well as positive coping mechanisms for stress. Engaging in activities that nurture you emotionally, mentally, and spiritually is also part of self-care.
As you can see, being socially connected is important to our health. Not just physically but spiritually, mentally, and emotionally. So next time you have a jam-packed week between family, work, and any other obligations, make sure you carve out some time to spend with others. It may be more beneficial for your health in the long run.