Maintaining social connections protects against anxiety
Recently, Bupa and the ParalympicsGB team launched the #TeamHealth campaign, which promoted wider access to teams, communities and societies. More than half (58%) of people who were surveyed felt socially excluded in the past year, leading to social isolation (41%) and poor mental health (30%). Feelings associated with poor mental health included isolation (41%), sadness (41%) and anxiety (33%). Once again, anxiety and social isolation seem to show a strong correlation. This indicates that social connections and people-to-people friendships play a key role in regulating our nervous systems and in stabilising our emotional centres, such as the limbic system in the brain.
The research indicates that those people living with a disability (72%) are more likely to experience exclusion and that this group is twice more likely to report poorer mental health than the wider population. The campaign also highlighted that about 44% of people in the UK are not involved in social, professional, community or interests-based support networks, whilst for one in five (21%), the number of teams and social networks that they belong to has decreased over the past three years.
The fact is that our species has survived and thrived on social connections and networks, which have been our greatest asset. Physically, human beings are fragile creatures and prone to infections and attacks by many species in the world around us.
However, our safety has been intricately linked to working in teams and ensuring that, as a pack, we feel safer, stronger and more likely to pass on our genes and our biological heritage. So, there is a strong correlation between social isolation and anxious feelings of being unsafe. The inability to be mentally and emotionally validated by others can, over time, create long-term stresses as an individual struggles to cope with them alone in their later years.
The outcome of social isolation can include:
- increased levels of stress
- hyperactive sympathetic nervous systems
- increased neuronal excitation
- low mood
- emotional disconnection with themselves, as well as others
Social isolation seems to be a major issue that is plaguing developed and industrialised nations. As more and more is required from workers, social networks have been left to weaken over time as people have less time and bury their heads in the virtual world, which further detaches them from the real world and the ‘here and now’, This creates less opportunities for people to emotionally regulate themselves through close contact, direct conversation, observing pleasant facial expressions and developing feelings of strong bonds and trust.
This is why social isolation is increasingly being labelled as the ‘silent killer’. Its impacts on our sympathetic nervous system can affect blood pressure, mood, glucose levels, cognitive functions and sleep. It also goes against the very nature of evolution over hundreds of thousands of years that built us to work in teams.
This is why we have so much to learn from the history of indigenous communities who now suffer from many of these conditions. Tribal networks, connection with nature, physical exercise and the place and space of an individual within a wider social network all provided a protective blanket around the mental health of people in those communities.
Today, many of these basic connections to their tribes and to nature have aggressively been broken by loggers, corporate businesses, racial prejudice, land grabs and greed that has stripped them of their ancestral lands and their culture. Surely, now is the time for us to see the value in each other and in bonding and connecting at every opportunity that we can.