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Do You Have A Tribe?: Why Connection and Community Is Vital to Well-Being

Do You Have A Tribe?: Why Connection and Community Is Vital to Well-Being

By Gillian Leithman  

Independence is glorified in North American culture as a symbol of strength.

As a society we value individual achievement and extol self-reliance.

This belief even pervades our parenting styles. We parent our young children to play by themselves in an effort to help them build autonomy and a strong sense of self.

I wonder however, if our “go at it alone” attitude has led us down a lonely and isolating path?

Did you know that Loneliness is lethal?

30% of Americans don’t feel close to others at any given time. And the number of lonely Americans has doubled since the 1980s.

According to science loneliness shortens our lifespan. Twice as much as does obesity.

Yes you read that right!

Dr. John Cacioppo, the world’s foremost authority on loneliness, maintains that the number of people in your life does not inoculate you from experiencing loneliness. Rather, it is the feeling of being lonely that places the brain and body at risk.

Cacioppo equates feeling lonely with feeling hungry. We compromise our survival and wellbeing when either is ignored.

We are biologically hardwired to respond to our environment. When we experience low blood sugar levels, we crave food.  The feeling of our stomachs being empty is a warning sign to eat and it is essential to our very survival.

It is far easier to ignore the signs of loneliness. Yet, we suffer an array of psychological and physiological consequences when we neglect such feelings.

When we feel lonely we desire connection with others. Much like the loud rumble that your tummy makes when hungry.

Aging ParentWhat you may be unaware of however, is that such a state triggers a cascade of physiological responses.

According to Cacioppo’s research, loneliness triggers “hyper-vigilance”. That is your brain is on the look out for social threats, which consequently puts us on the defensive. We become more reactive to negative events and perceive daily hassles as more stressful.

I am sure you will not be surprised to learn that such a state compromises our health and decreases our immune response.

And sadly there is no refuge in sleep.

A lonely brain awakens often, experiences fragmented sleep and cannot recover from the day’s stressful events. A lonely brain is also subject to an increase in depressive symptoms and has difficulty self-regulating. That is why you may find yourself irritable and impulsive.

If overeating, excessive drinking and the consumption of quick-fix feel-good temporary solutions sounds familiar, know that you are not alone.

Cacioppo’s research has revealed that participants who scored high on the U.C.L.A. Loneliness scale consume fattier foods than their less lonely counterparts.

Loneliness has also been linked to cognitive decline.  A 3-year longitudinal Dutch study followed over 2000 participants aged 65-86. While none of the participants had signs of dementia at the outset of the study, results revealed that those who reported feeling lonely, had a 64 percent increase in the risk of developing dementia.  

Loneliness also affects the body.  Psychologist Stephen Suomi’s research indicates that loneliness distorts the expression of certain genes. An experiment separating newborn primates from their mothers during their first four months of life resulted in the altered development of immunity-related genes that help the body fight viruses.

Social psychologist Lisa Jaremka’s research indicates that lonely people have higher levels of activated viruses in their system and are at greater risk of suffering from chronic inflammation, which has been linked to Type 2 diabetes, arthritis, heart disease and even suicide.

While obesity increases your odds of an early death by 20 percent, loneliness increases your odds by 45 percent.

So what are we to do with an emotional state that is so powerful that it can alter our brains, compromise our physiology and cut short our longevity?

Seek out connection:  we all need a tribe!A couple senior asian talking and exercising at a park

Step 1: Stop denying, and accept ‘feeling lonely’ as simply a craving for connection.

Step 2: Acknowledge the consequences of prolonged loneliness. If you ignore hunger, you starve. Same is true of our need for belonging. If you feel lonely, reach out to others.

Step 3: Recognize that Quality RELATIONSHIPS are most effective at feeding this void.

We are physiologically and psychologically primed for connection. We all need a tribe. We all need community.

So the next time you feel lonely and out of sorts, acknowledge it as a signal that you are in need of connection and seek out companionship.

Your body and your brain will be thankful that you did, and you may even increase your longevity!

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Gillian Leithman, BA, MSc, Ph.D. is the founder of Rewire to Retire™. A company devoted to helping people position themselves for third age success by using cutting edge research from the field of Psychology, Management and Neuroscience.

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