Want to be healthier? Get social!
Written by Dr. Lynn Tran McDonald
It is undeniable that the pandemic of COVID-19 is making its mark in history. There are speculations that we are facing the end of handshakes and hugs, and the new acceptable norm will be elbow bumps in the practice of social distancing, even into the aftermath of the virus.
Government lockdowns, workplace closures, school closures have brought to light the power of conferencing technology. In Japan, people are practicing on-nomi, which translates to online drinking with friends while they are self-quarantined at home. While in the U.S., we have similar practices such as meeting on wine, to virtual dinners with friends, to conferencing for work- and school-related activities. We are called to make significant changes in just a matter of weeks, but there is one constant that we can all count on: Communication will always be important to us as a species that we will constantly work to develop new ways to connect.
It started with carving on rocks, moved to pen and paper, telephone, internet, to text messaging, to social media and web conferencing. We are comforted by the notion that we are not alone, that someone out there is having a similar experience, and those shared experiences make us feel good. Friendships are born through these shared experiences and those friends help us de-stress, make us laugh, and motivate us to be our best versions of ourselves especially during times of adversity.
According to psychologist Susan Pinker, direct contact with other people triggers our nervous system to release a cocktail of neurotransmitters that regulate our response to stress and anxiety. In other words, when we have social interaction, it helps us become more resilient to stress.
Positive social interactions, such as handshakes, hugs, laughing and stimulating conversations releases oxytocin, which reduces cortisol and lowers your stress. Social interaction is also key to positive cognitive development.
Young children learn how to perform tasks and interact with one another based on social interactions they have. With senior citizens, having social interaction keeps the brain healthy and alive and slows down mental decline. Unfortunately, currently lockdowns and strict visitation rules during this pandemic is making them feel even more isolated.
A study published in Alzheimer’s and Dementia: The Journal of Alzheimer’s Association looked at how social interaction benefited people with dementia. Researchers studied sets of male twins to look for predictors of dementia. The twins that had more social interaction and cognitive activity in middle age experienced less signs of dementia as they aged. Social activities were strongly linked to a lower risk of cognitive decline. This study leads us to believe that promoting cognitive activities such as reading or doing puzzles in conjunction with social activities could help prevent or delay the onset of diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
If staying social is a struggle for you, and you’re looking for ways to get out and stimulate your brain, I have some tips:
Practice Gratitude | This isn’t always an easy one, especially when you may be experiencing plan cancellations, decreased income, or job loss, or juggling family life and work life under one roof. However just by focusing on gratitude will naturally stimulate the feeling of happiness that comes from appreciation. A great practice to incorporate every day is to have a gratitude journal. You can jot down your list of gratitude as your start and end your day. Over time, your journal becomes great memorabilia as you review how your life evolved.
Be Curious | Now, more than ever, people are feeling isolated. Reaching out and calling a family, friend or neighbor is a great opportunity to practice giving and to shift your own personal state if you’re feeling lonely as well. Many people want to feel heard, and feel good when others take an interest in them and listen to what they have to say. Good conversation is always a give and take but being curious about other people helps you to learn things you may miss otherwise…and learning is a great way to keep the brain active.
Join Groups with People who Share Common Interests with You | There are many outlets with social media, such as Facebook or Eventbrite. Currently, many groups are hosting virtual meetups, people are getting creative and offering free classes on their own personal pages, from meditation, to fitness routines, to cooking sessions. Tune in and support these people who are willing to put themselves out there to spread some love.
Find an Accountability Partner | Like many people, you may have been gifted more time during this pandemic. Now is a good time as ever to start projects that you have been meaning to get to. Perhaps it’s reading a book, or start an in-home fitness regimen, or piecing together your dream job. Reaching out and scheduling time to mastermind with like-minded people and creating an accountability partner to check in with regularly via Skype or Zoom will help you focus on moving forward during this time, rather than feeling stuck.
Don’t be Afraid to Get Deep | With the pandemic, it is already common to talk about the pandemic like we are talking about the weather. Let yourself share what you are truly feeling, let yourself show the vulnerabilities that you are experiencing at this time because chances are the person you are engaging with is craving for that connection too.
Deeper conversations lead to dopamine being released in your brain, which causes people to feel pleasure. Scientists are realizing our brains need more stimulation than the food we eat, the oxygen we breathe and the water we drink. We need other people— especially now with the pandemic. Normal brain function thrives with social interaction. Our brains are built on a complex web of social interactions with family, friends, coworkers, strangers and beyond. We think about others, talk about others, interact with others, judge their intentions, read their moods and process millions of bits of information about them daily. Social interaction doesn’t just make us happier, but it keeps our brain healthy and functioning. More than ever now, we all need to stay connected.
Bio: Dr. Lynn Tran McDonald is a neurologically based chiropractor, yoga and meditation teacher. She is an adjunct faculty at Metro State University. She runs a private practice with her husband in Wheat Ridge called Wild & Precious Optimal Living offering brain-based chiropractic services to increase resilience and healthy living. Tune in at 8pm MST on her business page for creative meditations nightly. And follow Dr. Lynn on Facebook & Instagram for more health tips.