Stress and the Power of Connection: Part 3 of the Four Pillars of Stress Management

The relationships in our lives matter more than you know. Connection is a vital part of our health and the way we manage stress.

For most of us, stress is a fact of life. In an effort to protect ourselves against stress-related chronic disease, building a comprehensive stress-busting toolkit is essential to our sustained wellbeing. Thankfully, the growing field of wellness offers us a range of resources to help us build a stress-resilient lifestyle. Wholesome food, revitalizing movement, soothing bodywork, restful sleep, and restorative contemplative practices are all proven and powerful, but one essential yet often overlooked strategy to help us move gracefully through stressful circumstances is the intentional cultivation of social bonds. Connection and touch are essential to our wellbeing and can fortify us to thrive even amidst the most trying of circumstances.

How does connection improve our health and longevity?

The relationship between social connection and longevity has been known for decades. A landmark study published in 1979 revealed that adults who lacked social connections had a higher risk of mortality during the nine-year study period than people who had extensive social networks. This association held true even after controlling for important variables such as socioeconomic status, self-reported health status, and health behaviors such as smoking and alcohol consumption. In a subsequent study published in 1987, adults over age 70 with the lowest social connection scores had a 50% higher risk of mortality during the 17-year study period compared to the respondents with the highest social network scores. The findings have been replicated in more recent research - a broad and engaging social life is protective for our health and longevity.

How does connection reduce stress?

The need for social connectedness is so fundamental that an experience of social exclusion triggers activation of the same part of the brain (the anterior cingulate cortex) that is activated when suffering physical pain. We are wired to need and support one another. Human connection protects our survival, and this awareness prompts us to reach out to others to ensure solid bonds when we feel threatened or vulnerable.

It is hypothesized that the connection between social isolation and mortality is mediated by biological pathways involved in the stress response. Any severe stress (i.e. financial hardship, loss of a loved one, social stigma, etc.) causes the release of cortisol, cytokines and other substances that impact our physiological systems, including our immune system. In the absence of social support to buffer the stress response, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis remains activated, and the slower stress hormone recovery process accelerates physiological wear and tear. Social networks buffer the damaging effects of stress by reducing the body’s heightened arousal, lowering cortisol levels, increasing oxytocin levels, and lowering blood pressure.

Of course, psychological factors mediate the relationship between stress and connection as well. The perception of support (i.e. just knowing someone is there for you) can be a burden lifted. Being involved in relationships also increases our experiences of self-efficacy, meaning, and purpose, all of which are related to long-term health.

However, there are several factors that are important to include in this discussion:

First, building a diverse social network appears to be more protective than relying on just a small group of close friends and family. This might be surprising given the importance we naturally place on intense family ties. For some, intense family ties may be too restrictive. In fact, some research has shown that people with larger and more diverse networks (i.e. involving various group affiliations, religious groups, friend groups, etc.) have fewer depressive symptoms than those with smaller, more restrictive networks. The importance of network diversity seems to be true across various cultural contexts.

Second, it appears that groups only enhance health when the members strongly identify with the other members of the group. Thus, being part of a group only serves to support health and reduce stress when you feel strong affiliations and identification with its members. When you do not identify with the group, the support may seem unhelpful and could even cause strain that proves detrimental to your health. Social identification - the degree to which you identify with your social network - seems to be the active ingredient in the protective power of social relationships. Thus, it is wise to choose your social groups mindfully.

What about smartphones and social media?

While smartphones and social media platforms offer incredible channels for building networks of connection, research is still needed to assess the impact of digitally-mediated relationships. Clearly, these tools do not replace the need for face-to-face engagement, but they do provide opportunities for connection that would otherwise be difficult or impossible to obtain. Our relationships with these digital platforms are complex, nuanced, and often full of ambivalence. For example, while “giving up” Facebook for a stretch of time was found to lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, the detox (paradoxically) also lead to lower levels of self-reported life satisfaction. On the one hand, our perception of connection leads to feelings of wellbeing, but on the other hand, connection overload can lead to excessive stress as well. If you find that your social media consumption is causing stress, depression or anxiety, it could be time for a social media detox.

The same degree of awareness must be applied to our smartphone use as well. One meta-analysis indicated a significant association between smartphone use and stress and anxiety. Yes, smartphones help us feel connected to our networks, but their presence can be damaging as well. One study found that the mere presence of a mobile phone degraded face-to-face interactions even when the phone was not in use. As the study authors, Przybylski and Weinstein, described, “phones operate as a prime that activates implicit representations of wider social networks, which in turn crowd out face-to-face conversations.” The bottom line? When you are out with colleagues, friends, and loved ones, put your phone away completely (not just face down on the table) and give them your full and undivided attention. While phones were created to facilitate communication, our current attachment to them now disrupts bonding and intimacy. Their presence reminds our companions (consciously or unconsciously) of other people outside of the immediate social context. Stashing away your phone is a meaningful way to demonstrate presence and respect. Once you and your companions share full and undivided attention with one another, something else magical can occur: true connection.

The healing power of human touch

Touch supports wellbeing and thriving during infancy, and its importance persists throughout the lifespan. Touch is involved in the development of romantic relationships, in offering support during difficult times, in bonding with children and loved ones, and in creating a harmonious environment even during business encounters. From hugs to caresses to handshakes, affectionate touch is an important - and often underappreciated - tool for stress reduction. Affectionate touch increases levels of the love hormone, oxytocin, which subsequently lowers cortisol levels, activity of the amygdala (the part of the brain involved in emotional reactivity and the stress response), as well as the subjective experience of stress. During stressful times, physical touch bolsters relationships and confers powerful protective benefits. In one study, people being supported in conversations that included touch felt more able to overcome their stressors, experienced greater decreases in stress, increased their self-esteem, and viewed their partners more positively compared to people who received less touch. Even more interesting was the fact that the supporters felt more positive about their partners as well when they were touched.

Touch is a necessary ingredient in our recipe for whole person wellbeing. Sometimes it can be supplemented or enhanced in the form of therapeutic massage or bodywork - both of which are important resources for human connection and healing. A number of studies now support the power of massage for prompting immediate reductions in cortisol and heart rate - physiological markers of the stress response.

Take a moment to determine how much your daily life involves touch. If you struggle to come up with an answer, it’s time for more intentional physical touch. Hugging, for example, has been shown to improve immunity, increase feelings of social support, improve mood when under stress, protect cardiovascular health, and even reduce the risk of contracting an infection. Go ahead and don’t be shy: see how many hugs you can give and receive in a day. Think of it as stress protection - because that is exactly what it is!

The essential need for connection

When it comes down to it, the most essential driving force in our life is to feel connected, appreciated, and loved. This is why Touch & Connection is one of the Four Pillars of Namaste’s wellness philosophy. Feeling well involves more than movement, food, and meditation. More than anything else, we need connection. It is fundamental to the human experience.

"The greatest thing
You'll ever learn
Is just to love
And be loved
In return"

-lyrics from “Nature Boy,” written by Eden Ahbez

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