Alone, Together

In many ways, social connections are easier now than ever before, with our smartphones, apps and social media.

And yet, a recent study found that nearly half of Americans reported feeling lonely or left out, and over 40 percent felt isolated from others. Despite the availability of social media, it was the lack of in-person connections that was the greater cause for loneliness.  

So you’re not alone if you sometimes feel alone. But that doesn’t solve the problem – and a problem it is.

According to research from Brigham Young University, lack of social connection had a greater risk of mortality than smoking 15 cigarettes a day.  Other research has shown significant increased risks for heart disease, stroke and Alzheimer’s.

Improving social connections can not only benefit our careers and social lives, but our well-being and lifespans!

Why Making Connections Can Be Hard

To understand why we might not be connecting more with others, let’s look at the brain that guides us.

One of the most critical functions of our brain is to keep us safe. In keeping with this important goal of survival, we can begin to close ourselves off to others.

Through a complicated process, much of which is outside of conscious awareness, our brain and nervous system are constantly scanning for threats in order to guide our actions and keep us safe.

In this process, the brain tries to anticipate what’s coming next based on past experience.

So when we’ve had a bad social experience – and who hasn’t?! – in similar future circumstances, the brain connects to that painful experience to make a prediction about the new situation.

With the prediction of rejection or other potential threat, a protective stress response kicks in (i.e., fight, flight, or freeze).

In addition, if you’re already feeling stressed, tired, or sick, the chances are even slimmer that you are going to want to go out and be social. Because when your physical energy is low, your brain’s protective response is to keep you home and safe.

Once the brain gets into this self-protective mode, it can be hard to break free because the neural connections become stronger as we follow them – even habitual. (Click here for more on working with bad feelings.)

But because of the wonderful gift of neuroplasticity, our brains can always create new neural connections, including ones wired for greater connections.

How? In a word, acceptance.

Acceptance Improves Social Connections

Researchers at Carnegie Melon University recently found that acceptance of one’s experience was a critical factor in improving social connections. In the study, 153 adults were divided into 3 groups and given instructions for practicing different techniques via smartphones for 20 minutes a day for 2 weeks.

One group’s instructions involved common coping techniques. A second group was instructed regarding mindfulness and monitoring their experience. A third group was instructed regarding mindfulness, monitoring and accepting uncomfortable experiences with a gentle “yes” and a welcoming state of mind.

At the end of 2 weeks, those that practiced acceptance showed the greatest improvement in social connectedness, with an average of two more social contacts per day and a 22 percent decrease in loneliness.

As Professor J. David Creswell, lead author of the study said, “When you are more accepting towards yourself, it opens you up to be more available to others.” 

Often, we try to reject or suppress what we’re feeling and put “mind over matter.” Most of us at some point have forced ourselves to go to a social event when we felt like staying home.

But to improve social connections in the longterm, accepting ourselves and our feelings, which is also the more effective strategy for tolerating physical pain, is the best bet.  

Practicing Acceptance

Acceptance is a critical component of my framework for change. It sounds easy enough, but not so easy in practice.

Many of us have strong neural pathways of judging, suppressing or dismissing our feelings. So it won’t change overnight, but with practice it gets easier and more automatic.

As I frequently remind clients, the practice is not about accepting or condoning a situation that is unacceptable. It is simply about accepting or allowing what you are feeling in the present moment. Even when our feelings are not based on objective truths, the feelings themselves are real.

Rumi, a Sufi poet and philosopher sums it up well:

This being human is a guest house. Every morning is a new arrival. A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor… Welcome and entertain them all. Treat each guest honorably. The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in. Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.

What might the practice look like?

First, become aware of what you are feeling in the present moment. This includes physical sensations as well as emotions. It can help to use words to label what you are feeling. The brain wants to know so it can work with it.

Second (the hardest part), let go of any tendency to want to get rid of the feeling, change it or suppress it. Instead, be a curious observer of whatever is there, allowing or inviting it in. As in the study, you can mentally say “yes” to whatever is there. You can also gently place a hand on any tension you feel in the body. Breath deeply as you continue to observe whatever arises, without judgment.

You may notice a shift, you may not. Don’t worry either way. You can’t be in acceptance when you’re trying to control an outcome!

Give it a try and let me know how it goes.

Photo by Omar Lopez on Unsplash.

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