How to Improve Social Connections – and Your Brain

Jul 18, 2021 | Change, Stress

Pandemic of isolation

Have you been finding social connections a little harder lately? 

Connecting with others is not always easy – especially after over a year of Covid-induced social isolation and distancing.

Our brains and nervous systems have been on an extended period of high-alert, and we may feel a little hesitant or out of practice. We may also be reassessing who we want in our social circle.

Even before the pandemic, a 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, a lack of in-person connections was the greater cause for loneliness.

According to research, 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.

Wired for social connection

Humans are wired to connect. 

Our brains have mirror neurons that help us understand others by creating an inner imitation of the actions of others. So if I see you smiling, my mirror neurons for smiling light up, and I experience (in a milder form) what you are experiencing.

Connection and belonging have also helped us survive as a species. A community of people is much more likely to survive than an individual with no support from others.

So of course we would have a need for social connection and belonging.

Why social connection can be hard

Then why might we find it hard to connect?

To start, many of us are raised in a culture and society that value individuals and independent success above community and collective success. We are taught to compete with and compare ourselves to others, rather than to look at who we are in community with them.

Possibly we also had some prior experiences of being rejected, ignored or disappointed by others.

And let’s also consider the brain. While wired to connect, it also has a critical job of keeping us alive and safe.

Through a quick and reflexive process (sometimes called neuroception), 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 what it reads from the body and nervous system and what it knows from 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.

And a protective stress response kicks in (i.e., fight, flight, or freeze).

In addition, if you’re already feeling stressed, tired, or sick, your brain’s protective response is to preserve your energy, which often means 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.)

#1 way to build back connection

Despite these tendencies, our brains can always create new neural connections. And once we become aware of patterns, we are in a position to change them.

As Dr. Dan Siegel says, “Where attention goes, neural firing flows, and neural connection grows.”

One of the most powerful ways to counteract feelings of isolation and build back a sense of connection is to help another person.

Research suggests selflessly helping others is linked to greater well-being, lower levels of anxiety and depression, and longevity.

In addition, studies show that compassion increases activity in brain areas involved in the generation of oxytocin (a “feel-good” hormone related to attachment and bonding) and the brain’s motivation and reward circuitry, and it enhances positive emotions in difficult situations.  

So acts of compassion can not only help us feel good, they can also motivate us if we’re in a slump.

They can also help our brains. Because when we connect with or helping others despite some discomfort (ours or theirs), we build our capacity for self-regulation. This means we are activating our prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain we need for executive functioning, self-control, planning, greater awareness and – of course – compassion.

Train the brain for compassion

So compassion can improve your well-being, and your brain’s neural circuitry.

In a study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Dr. Helen Weng and others found that compassion can be cultivated through a 2-week training program that affected the brain’s neural circuits that support altruism, self-regulation and positive emotions.

As in the study, you can train for compassion by regularly practicing directing one’s attention to kind thoughts and well-wishes towards various people. Often called lovingkindness meditation, the practice involves repeating phrases such as: “may you be safe; may you be well; may you be happy and free,” directed at different people. (The exact words don’t matter as much as the meaning of them, and you can use phrases and words that resonate for you.) 

You can find a number of free guided compassion practices online. Choose one that works for you, such as: the 30-minute practice used in Dr. Weng’s study (above); a 30-minute compassion/lovingkindness practice from Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center; or a shorter guided compassion/lovingkindness practices through the free app Insight Timer

If formal meditation is not your thing, have no fear.

You can simply choose kind thoughts, well-wishes, and/or small acts of kindness toward others. As you turn your attention to kind thoughts and actions, you will activate the neural circuits associated with compassion.

The more you focus your attention on compassionate thoughts and actions, the stronger the connections will get.

If you’re looking for an idea, visit the You Matter Marathon for some free resources to start sharing kindness and compassion. Or share some of your own ideas below.

In addition to feeling more socially connected, you could also improve your self-regulation, executive functioning, wellbeing, and even your lifespan!

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash 


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Jen Riggs Blog

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Jennifer is the creator of Pathways to Change, a framework for mindful leadership development that integrates coaching, neuroscience, mindfulness and mind-body principles.

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