Need For Connection
I struggle with anxiety and depression and find it difficult to interact with people sometimes. But I get lonely and this makes my mental health worse. I need connection – so what can I do?
Signed: Need For Connection
Dear Need For Connection,
Feeling connected and having a sense of belonging within a community is a critical necessity for every human being (it’s okay that it looks different for many of us). As a species, we are hard-wired to crave attachment and to be pack animals. This is a survival feature – years ago, humans lived longer when they could be protected within a group.
Where we fall on the spectrum of being introverted and extroverted plays a huge role in our level of comfortable interaction with others. And finding the way to achieve this feeling of connection while still respecting the limitations we experience when we also deal with mental health issues can definitely be a challenge.
Part of the battle with any mental health issue is trying to find the balance between taking proper care of ourselves (listening to our needs so we don’t overextend and make things worse) and pushing back on the false thoughts (especially with anxiety/depression) which tell us that we cannot function in certain situations (because we really can). This requires daily (and sometimes hourly) self-assessment, and sometimes we need help (from a therapist or a close friend who truly knows how to encourage and support us through our mental health issues) to know where that line might be.
We also have to recognize that as we push back the anxiety/depression, we will feel uncomfortable (because it’s not an easy thing to do), and that’s a healthy experience. It tells us that we are reprogramming our neurological pathways and growing in new ways.
One of the best ways to reprogram our emotional processing and our reward processing/pleasure responses is through connection; specifically, by being a support to someone else. When we allow ourselves to step outside of our own struggles and focus instead on the basic needs of other people, we trigger numerous chemical reactions in our brain that actually help build resiliency and confidence.
This allows us to override the more negative and less helpful responses that tend to stem from our MH issues, and retrains our brain to seek out and want the positive responses instead. It creates an increase of oxytocin, serotonin, dopamine, and epinephrine, which elevate our happiness and our energy levels (and lessens issues of depression and anxiety). Our physical health improves, our mental wellness increases significantly, and our ability to manage and find a healthy balance in our day is exponentially strengthened.
Even small acts of kindness can produce this positive chemical chain reaction. Research shows us that there is a 3-1 multiplier effect for altruistic acts – meaning that our efforts have a contagious impact for 3 degrees of separation (like the butterfly effect). That’s power we didn’t even realize we had. The evidence also shows that the emotional/biopsychosocial impact of our acts comes back to us just as much as it impacts others. One act of graciousness towards others has the full positive boosting effect on our neurological pathways for a month (and to a lesser degree, for up to 3 months).
Here are some ways of connecting with others:
Find small ways to show others of the value they bring to the world. You can offer a compliment, send a note or email thanking a person for something they did/said, or just spend a few minutes focusing on another person’s accomplishments.
Celebrate (or create) important milestones in other people’s lives – bring attention to a birthday or anniversary, or to World Smile Day (Google can help you find a reason to celebrate almost any day!).
Make a phone call or have a video chat with someone, if you do not have the energy to have an in-person visit (you don’t even need to shower or get dressed). Talk to others about their own lives – make them the centre of the conversation, and allow yourself to feel the peace that comes with stepping away from your own struggles for a while.
Join a support group (you don’t have to have all the answers or be in crisis when you do this). Sharing your own life experiences is a fantastic way to offer strength and hope to someone else – to walk beside them and to let them know you understand their pain and they are not alone.
Volunteer (you can even find options that don’t require you to be around others directly), foster an animal (especially an older or dying one), plant a garden and share the spoils, bake or create a special item and drop it on someone’s porch with a little note (explain, so the recipient knows it’s safe).
Smile with your eyes and say a friendly hello (the conversation does not need to go any further, if you aren’t feeling social) as you pass someone on a walk or in a store.
There are an endless number of ways to share goodness in this world, within the scope of your own capabilities. We just sometimes forget that the simple things really mean so much to others!
Remember that whatever feeling we feed ends up dictating what we will feel. Make a point of incorporating these positive connection moments on a regular basis in your week – at least once, but maybe up to 3 or 4 different times, in different ways. The more you rewire your brain to focus on something beyond your own anxiety/depression, and the more you trigger the development of these positive new biochemical pathways in your brain, the better you will feel.
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