Mindful Communication is a powerful technique to achieve deep connection and honest, trusting relationships. For many people, that would be enough. But having a healthy social network is essential for your physical health as well. Our family and friends are life savers. Let’s see why.
So Many Are Alone
Social isolation is a growing problem, especially as we move past middle-age. In 1979, 17% of American households held a single person, living alone. By 2011, that number had increased to 28%.
But living alone doesn’t tell the whole story. People not only were living alone, but feel disconnected. The percent of Americans who said they had no one to talk to about important problems rose from 10% in 1985 to 25% in 2004. That’s one person in four confronting big problems alone. The number has almost certainly increased since then.
Alone And At Risk
Scientists have found that social isolation and loneliness both associated with an increased chance of death. Many people believed that loneliness was the real cause, that people who are comfortable with being alone are not at risk. It turns out that this is not true. Social isolation that stands out as the contributing cause of death.
Exactly how our social lives affect our biology is not clear. But there are a number of areas where isolated people are either more at risk or sicker than people with strong social connection. Let’s consider a few of these:
Socially isolated people have double the risk of heart disease and heart attacks, compared to the most connected people. They are also at risk for related diseases like high blood pressure and stroke. And it doesn’t stop there. People who become ill, but have little social support, are less likely to recover than people with better social networks.
Social isolation seems to be a source or amplifier of stress. Isolated people have high levels of stress hormones in their blood. This causes heart attack risk factors like high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels.
One additional detail is that this is especially true for men. Our culture encourages men to be “rugged individualists,” but this comes at a high price.
The good news is that people who develop their connections to others reduce their risk with each new friend that they make. We often talk about our heart-felt connection to our friends. This is not poetry, it is medical truth.
Socially isolated people are more susceptible to colds and viruses. This may be a surprise. We think we catch colds from human contact, and that’s partly true. But that doesn’t consider our own immune resistance. When volunteers were directly exposed to two cold viruses, the more connected and sociable a person was, the less likely he was to get sick.
Friends are literally the best medicine: they are not just the cure for the common cold, they are prevention.
Inflammation is getting a lot of attention as a cause of chronic disease. Normal immune systems produce inflammation to fight infection in the short-term. But stressed immune systems produce inflammation chemicals even when there is no threat. These chemicals damage our own cells and tissues. Reducing inflammation is important to our long-term health and wellness.
A number of serious illnesses are associated with inflammation. Here is a partial list:
- Heart disease: inflammation irritates coronary arteries, increasing the risk of clots that cause heart attacks
- Stomach pain and bowel disease: Inflammation can affect the good bacteria that live in your gut. It can also attack the tissues of the stomach and intestines, causing pain and affecting our ability to absorb nutrients
- Cancer: Cancers of the lung, esophagus, cervix, and digestive tract have been linked to chronic inflammation
- Lungs: Inflammation irritates and restricts airways, increasing the risk of infections and causing asthma and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
- Gum disease: Don’t underestimate this—infections in the mouth are linked to heart disease and dementia
- Weight gain: Inflammation affects our appetite and how we deal with it. It also slows our metabolism
- Osteoporosis: The effect of inflammation on the digestive tract reduces the ability to absorb calcium
- Depression: Inflammation chemicals may affect mood, appetite, and sleep. The causes of depression are complex, but inflammation is a possible chemical contributor
Dementia and Cognitive Decline
People with no social network are more at risk for these diseases than people with as few as five or six friends. The reasons for this are still not clear. It may be a side effect of inflammation, as mentioned above. It could be that interacting with friends provides important mental stimulation. Depression is also associated with dementia. Loneliness and isolation are depressing for many people, and having friends can help lift our mood.
Whatever the reason, social connection helps keep us sharp.
Communicate To Connect
Mindful Communication is a means to an end. The goal and purpose of communication is to connect with and understand another person. Human language is different from anything else in nature. The ability to use language is evidence that humans are, by nature, social beings. Language would not be useful to creatures that lived out their lives alone, connecting only to reproduce. We are not like that, and our brains work in a social system.
Connecting with others is not a luxury. It is essential to our survival. We see this in the biology of loneliness: increased stress chemicals, increased inflammation, and then increased disease and death.
So don’t worry about your communication skills today. Reach out, with whatever tools of empathy, care, and expression you have. Strengthen a connection, by learning something new about an old friend or family member. Make a new connection, by reaching out to someone you have never spoken to before. You might save that person’s life. You might save your own.
Here is some research that supports the ideas in this article. I’m not making these things up!
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http://www.health.com/health/gallery/0,,20898778,00.html#too-much-of-a-good-thing–0 13 Ways Inflammation Can Affect Your Health
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US Census Bureau 2011. Current population survey, March and annual social and economic supplements, 2011. Available at www.census.gov/population/socdemo/hh-fam/.