I share these personal experiences in hopes that it will enhance your own journey of personal growth and help you feel that you always have the ability and power to choose how to live your life.
When there is a lack of social connection during childhood it can have long-term psychological, emotional, and physical consequences. Groundbreaking research in social neuroscience shows that our need to connect with others may be even more fundamental than our need for food, water, or shelter.
Long ago, when I worked as the director of a residential treatment program for at-risk teens, I quickly noticed a common theme among the children… disconnection. These kids felt disconnected from themselves, their families, their teachers, and their friends. They didn’t feel a sense of belonging or safety and they didn’t feel worthy of living a healthy, happy life.
With time I had the privilege of witnessing a majority of them change. Their negative thoughts and behaviors decreased significantly and sometimes even were nonexistent. They truly became such a pleasure to work with. It was evident that they were happier and less frustrated. They began to display better communication skills and self-control. No more acting out!! Can you imagine? I saw many of them take on leadership roles and even show altruistic behaviors towards their peers, their counselors, and even animals they were in contact with. I could see and feel their shift in perception.
You may be asking yourself…why the shift? What helped these kids change? What was different?
My answer: The Power of Connection.
Besides working with them while running different types of groups and “hanging out” in the common living space, several times a week I would see these teens on an individual basis. This was their time away from the rest of the group. Initially many resisted, which was understandable as it can be uncomfortable sitting with someone you don’t know, someone that you feel doesn’t know you and/or understand your experience. How could they!?! They haven’t lived in your shoes…they weren’t there when you fell and got hurt, when you received your first good grade, or when your friends were being mean. How could they “get” you?
There is a special space that is created between two people when they are open and allow connection to occur. The special space we created together helped these teens grow significantly. It was a space where they felt heard, understood and valued. It was a space where judgment didn’t exist, only acceptance. It didn’t matter that our pasts weren’t spent together or that we were very different from each other. With time, the space felt safer and the connections deepened. This allowed the changes to occur.
“Give people a safe space to speak and watch what unfolds”
Both individuals put their thoughts and emotions into the special space they created. Each individual is responsible for what they put in to this space in order to keep it balanced and healthy.
Some of the most important things I’ve learned in the last sixteen years of being in practice is about the power of connection and how someones subjective experience of feeling understood and accepted impacts their whole wellbeing.
If you’re still asking yourself why social connection is so important to cultivate, consider the latest research studies done on the physical and emotional impacts of connection:
1 – Strong social connections are extremely powerful in impacting your physical health.
- A review of 148 studies (308,849 participants) showed that individuals with stronger social relationships had a 50% increased likelihood of living a longer life.
- Research shows that a perceived lack of social connection is a greater detriment to health than obesity, high blood pressure, and even smoking.
- Feeling connected can boost your immune system and help you recover from disease faster.
2 – The perception that one has good connections has many mental health benefits:
- Better self-esteem and confidence
- Increased happiness and sense of belonging
- Greater sense of purpose
- Reduced levels of stress
- Decreased risk of depression and anxiety. A study conducted in Buffalo, New York found that respondents which perceived they had limited social support were the most likely to suffer from mental health disorders like anxiety and depression.
In order to connect with people on a deeper level, let go of any fears you might have of judgment. People will judge no matter what you say or do; it’s human nature.
Don’t stop yourself short by having superficial relationships. Remember, your health depends on your perception of how socially connected you are. Practice being open, more transparent and, if you are wearing a mask, I challenge you to take it off. Start today and live a more connected life.
Dr. Lisa Manuelian