A Call for Connection and Community

*I originally started writing this post as an article for my local paper several weeks back…and then, well, I fell off track.  I finally finished getting my thoughts together and decided to post it here instead.

The other day, my partner and I were having a discussion on the mental health impacts of social distancing among people in the community.  Actually, as a mental health professional, I lean towards the term “physical distancing” simply to highlight the fact that humans need social connection, even if it’s in alternate forms than what we’re used to.  

That’s not to say we can’t all benefit from some solitude, especially in nature (I’m a nature-based therapist after all!). I’m guessing a lot of people in the Estes Park community have spent days to weeks by themself in nature as a way to renew their spirits.  Still, we come back to people, community, the deep belly laughs we can only share in the presence of other kindred spirits.  While Henry David Thoreau may have “went to the woods to live deliberately” he hardly did so without the companionship of friends and visitors.

What happens in the absence of connection?  Depression, anxiety, addiction…

One of my favorite mental health quotes is found in the book “Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs” by Johan Hari where he said “The opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety, it’s connection.”  

You see, humans are wired for intimate human relationships.  

As infants, we learn soothing techniques from our parents.  When a baby cries, the parent goes to comfort the baby. This often includes holding the baby close to the skin.  In this moment, the hormone oxytocin (to name one) is released, which reduces stress levels and allows the infrant to feel safe.  As we age and form more bonds through relationships, we still have chemical responses.  Oxytocin, dopamine, (natural) opioids are released, combining to give us feelings of security and love. 

Personally, as someone who has a naturally sensitive nervous system, I need these bonds to help me feel connected and to help regulate my emotions.  For example, if I’m in tears, whether from receiving bad news or from watching a sad movie, my dog inevitably comes over and starts licking my face.  Not only does this help me take the edge off my sadness, but it usually makes me laugh until I’m one blubbering, giggily, sniffling mess. Still, as much as I love my dog, I need human companionship too.  When I come home anxious from what I perceived to be a stressful trip to the grocery store, or from spending too much time on social media, spending a few minutes talking to my partner or relaxing in his embrace can bring my heart rate back down.  In other words, he helps regulate my nervous system.  (The catch is that this works best when the “listener” stays relatively calm.  If both people are feeling dysregulated, it may be best to take a break.)  

When touch isn’t an option, simply expressing our worries can be therapeutic in any relationship.  Expressing our fears and worries to others, even when hearing the same fears and worries back, can help us feel like we are not alone.  

Humans also have these neat things called “mirror neurons”.  Have you ever watched one of your favorite athletes win a big match or race?  Did you watch as they cried happy tears as they tried to talk to a reporter minutes after the victory?  Did you start crying too?  Well, that’s because mirror neurons are at play.  Watching someone else’s facial emotions may illicit similar feelings in yourself.  So even if we can’t be with our friends or loved ones physically, seeing their face via Skype, Zoom, Facetime, etc. may be enough to restore a feeling of connectedness.  Additionally, even hearing the voice of a friend can bring forth positive emotions.  

Psychoeducation behind us, I’ll come back to our main point: we need connection and community now more than ever.   

So what is connection?

In technical terms, it simply means being joined or linked together.  In terms of human relationship and what we need to thrive, I’m going to add the words love, empathy, sacred, and shared humanity.  Then the definition for human connection becomes: A sacred unity that revolves around love, empathy, and a shared humanity.  (Again, I’m an animal and nature lover, so truly I rather use “shared living experience” but I don’t want to lose anyone or go on too much of a tangent.)

Community has a few different pieces to its definition, but in the case of Estes Park, the basic definition would include a body of people living within a defined area.  But aren’t we more than that?  We may have different interests and beliefs, but through our shared connection we can conjure up something much stronger.  Truly, for me being part of a community means being something bigger than myself.  On the hard days, knowing that is what helps me pull through.  

Most of us have already found ways to connect using technological means: Skype, Facetime, text, phone calls, taking virtual classes, etc.  I’m personally a big fan of old-fashioned letter writing too (taking proper precautions of course).  Still, that’s not all we can do.  When we pass people on the bike path or in the grocery store, we can look them in the eye, as if saying “I see and acknowledge you.”  We can smile at them (true smiles come from the eyes) as if to say “I’m glad you’re part of this community.” When we speak, especially with those who have different viewpoints of us, we can check within ourselves to make sure we are speaking from our hearts.  Then, not only seeing and speaking but acting.  We change our attitude from “there might not be enough for everyone, so I’m going to make sure I have all that I need to survive, to something that more closely  resembles the famous phrase of the three musketeers “all for one, and one for all.”  When we look at each other as fellow community members, we lose the illusion of the separate self and that we must do it all on our own.  Instead, we trust that there will always be a hand to pull us back up, and a promise we’ll do the same when it’s our turn to share our own blessings.  

“When I confront a human being as my Thou and speak the basic word I-Thou to him, then he is no thing among things nor does he consist of things. He is no longer He or She, a dot in the world grid of space and time, nor a condition to be experienced and described, a loose bundle of named qualities. Neighborless and seamless, he is Thou and fills the firmament. Not as if there were nothing but he; but everything else lives in his light.” Martin Buber

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(Me and a bunch of other goofballs who decided to get together for a very snow run in December.)

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