Health & Wellness: The best tip for stress prevention isn’t what you think

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Humans are wired for connection. The mirror neuron system is composed of neurons that are activated when we perform and observe a certain action, such as smiling. If you smile at someone, that person’s neurons for smiling will light up. (Courtesy Photo)
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By Eleni Boosalis

As I sit in a cafe in Del Ray, I am struck by the lack of social connection among everyone around me. All are buried in their phones or laptops. I am sensing what many of my patients describe as feeling “alone in a crowd.”

How many times have you been at a lively crowded event and felt completely alone? In contrast, have you felt a strong feeling of connection with one person even while being in complete silence and co-existing? Connection is not defined by the number of followers you have, but by the subjective experience of connection to and compassion with a person or people.

A decrease in social connection is associated with a decline in physical and psychological health and is a major risk factor for depression. With social connectedness being on the decline in the U.S., that leaves us as one of the most prosperous nations with one of the most depressed populations in the world.

A lack of social connection is worse for your health than obesity, smoking and binge-watching Netflix. It is also clear that the most common denominators among those who commit mass shootings and suicide are a lack of social connection and an existence of isolation.

It feels good to imbibe on social media for hours at a time, but then it leaves you feeling bad, wanting more and feeling malnourished. So, while we spend countless hours reading self-help books, decreasing our intake of processed food, increasing our cardio, eating more fruits and vegetables and listening to wellness podcasts, we may all be missing what we really need – authentic connections with other humans.

The truth is we are wired for connection. The mirror neuron system is composed of neurons that are activated when we perform and observe a certain action, such as smiling. If you smile at someone in line at the local cafe, that person’s neurons for smiling will light up. There is your karma coin for the day. We are wired to internalize the emotions of others, whether we like it or not.

We are also wired for kindness. It may seem unlikely with the state of the world today, but research conducted with rats, primates and infants has found repeatedly that among the first impulses we all have are compassion and kindness.

A rat will surpass numerous obstacles to help another rat. A rhesus monkey will refuse to pull a chain that will deliver food to her if she has observed another monkey receive a shock as a result of that action. A baby will cry in response to the cries of another baby more loudly than to a computer simulation of a baby crying or another loud sound. A toddler will imitate the distress or smile of someone else instantaneously.

So, what do we do with this research? As Mahatma Gandhi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

The best vaccination against the stress of the upcoming fall season is social connection, kindness and compassion. Look around at all of the opportunities you get to affect someone else’s mirror neurons by smiling, giving a compliment and just being kind.

It has been said that one act of compassion has three degrees of separation. An act of compassion is contagious and will generate more compassion. Research has shown that we are happier when we give than when we receive.

During this time of transitioning into new school years, a change in seasons and shorter days, be the change you wish to see in the world. Your neurons will thank you and so will your immune system.

Eleni Boosalis, Psy.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist and the co-owner of Del Ray Psych & Wellness, LLC.

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