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Why Social Isolation Leads to Inflammation
We are wired for community. If we disconnect, our bodies will call us back to the sense of human connection that we are wired for using the unexpected language of inflammation.
I love dancing, so I wasn’t too weirded out when we were asked, in one of my first kundalini classes to dance like no one was watching to some loud bhangra music. What really tweaked me (and likely most newbies in the class) was when the teacher turned the music down and asked us to take a stranger’s hands, face them, and stand close. She asked us to close our eyes and just breathe with this person. Then we were to open them and look into their eyes. Simply look, eyes open, into theirs. After about 30 seconds of panicked awkwardness, something opened and tears began to flow. They flowed from a chamber of the heart that is closed when we live as automatons separated from ourselves and each other. It takes less than two minutes to be reminded that this connection is missing.
The Chronic Hurt: The Community Wound
The “community wound” is a deep one for me. I remember a therapist once telling me, “you know what your problem is…you don’t let anyone in your life feel needed by you.” I was convicted by this because it was true. Fiercely independent, I made my mission self-sufficiency from an early age. Asking for advice, guidance, support, or counsel was a form of weakness, for “others” to indulge, and for me to remain squarely on the dispensing end of. I didn’t know that I was protecting a need so deep and so intense that to even expose it to the light of day would necessitate I come into contact with a deep wellspring of unmet needs and associated grief. Francis Weller, an expert on the matter, pierced my knowing heart when he wrote, “…when these things are finally granted to us, a wave of recognition rises that we have lived without this love, this acknowledgment, and the support of this village all of our lives.”
These days, I relish the opportunity to bring people together. Introducing friends, creating bigger webs, organizing alliances, and marinating in the womb-like energy of kundalini festivals.
As someone who has even identified as a loner, it shocks me that I can be in a room full of like-minded people and find myself on the verge of tears, unrelated to anything specific, for hours on end. Just simply being in that energy.
…when an individual’s particular kind of soulfulness, which is both an instinctual and a spiritual identity, is surrounded by psychic acknowledgement and acceptance, that person feels life and power as never before. – Clarissa Pinkola Estes
It’s no coincidence that A Mind of Your Own reached NY Times Bestseller status because of grassroots energy. Because of a fabric of those who love the truth. This for-the-people-by-the-people success was a part of my healing as much as an opportunity for others to reclaim their health journey.
The Reminder That It’s Missing: Addiction and Hopelessness
We are social animals, and our health and wellness depend on it. We used to wake up to dozens of eyes. Now in our modular homes and digitized worlds, we no longer feel that our tribe is holding us. In fact, missing, often, is the sense that anything is missing. But it is, and our bodyminds know it. According to Jane Leidloff, author of the Continuum Concept, our unmet primal needs may manifest as addiction-like behaviors as we seek to medicate deficiencies like that of the tribe.
In the 70s, Bruce Alexander conducted the famous Rat Park experiments (thanks to Will Hall for sharing this vital science with me!) where he rips the foundation out from under the drug war, the chemical addiction model, and the notion of the addict as mentally and physically disordered. His elegant experiments play on the presumption that rats in an isolated cage with one water and one cocaine dispenser go onto addict and eventually kill themselves. This seemingly demonstrates that chemical nature of the addictive process.
He then went on to conduct subsequent experiments in a “rat park” where the rats had a social network, space, and an enriching environment, in which they no longer chose to consume the cocaine and would even detox themselves voluntarily if they entered the space previously addicted. Watch a short sketch of the data here!
What this tells us is that, even in animals, community is the prevention and the treatment for self-abuse. Many argue this is why and how 12 Step programs enjoy the persistent success that they do. They offer community.
Inflammation and how it calls us back
If addiction and associated depression are a sign of what we are missing on a social level, is this all in the mind? Does the body participate in a meaningful way? Do they both work as one?
An important review on the subject by Eisenberger et al says yes: our behavior impacts our immune system and our immune system guides our behavior and inflammation is the common link. Inflammation has many sources, and evidence suggests that perceived stress, intestinal imbalance, medication exposures, and nutrient deficiencies can all contribute to an uptick in inflammatory messengers. In today’s stimulatory soup, inflammation traffics in the body as a result of everything from infection to that email you’re still obsessing about (non-infection-related inflammation is called “sterile” inflammation) and it has become a chronic phenomenon. In this sense, depression may be the final common pathway for the experience of mismatch with lifestyle – body, mind, and spirit.
What if we need each other to recover?
Are you in the market for a guru? So many of us are looking for that one person who will tell us just what to do and how to do it. Who will hold out that hand with the magic pill. My friend, James Maskell, invoked Thich Nhat Hanh’s genius when he reminded us that community is the guru of the future. By this, he means that the unique alchemy of our togetherness will ultimately serve to empower, heal, and guide us. The guru is not the expert, and it may not even simply be “within”. The guru is the web, the union, the sum greater than the parts. And it may be the case that we cannot heal fully without this sense of connectedness.
It is through this lens that we need to explore the latest theories on depression. Much of the new literature on depression (since we left the serotonin theory behind) has focused on “sickness syndrome” as a model of depression, or the idea that the depressed individual is inflamed and part of the behaviors that come with that are social withdrawal in order to limit contagion and recover. But what if we need each other to recover?Eisenberger reviews a literature that suggests that inflammation in humans actually drives pro-social behavior in many circumstances, in addition to a heightened sensitivity to positive social cues to help identify “allies”. They write:
“To the extent that sensitivity to certain types of social rewards is preserved in inflammatory-related depression, this hypothesis suggests a spared island of motivational significance for these individuals.”
In other words, you can be flat out on the couch, and even suicidal, but there is a part of your behavioral sensing mechanism that is still asking for and receptive to human connection.
They also discuss the literature that suggests that social isolation and rejection lead to inflammation. In this way, an awareness of these feelings of social disconnection may actually be the missing link to depression (not everyone with inflammation gets depressed), ultimately driving a type of enhanced responsiveness to “friendly connection” to bring the depressed person back to a place of connectedness. Perhaps this is why and how a trusting therapeutic relationship with a healer carries significant weight in resolving chronic disease.
They conclude with compelling nuance:
Social behavior influences the immune system – Social isolation leads to inflammation (with some groups 2.5 times more likely to have elevated CRP levels!) and specific effects on the immune system. I explore this in my peer-reviewed, indexed paper on the role of mental health in vaccine response. Additionally, a recent paper on “dyadic coping” demonstrated that couples who have high self-reported communication have less reactive immune systems to interpersonal stress.
The immune system influences social behavior – The immune system directs social behavior leading to specific interpersonal sensitivities, motives, and drives. Baseline inflammation renders people (especially women) more sensitive to further inflammatory responses to social stress. So, once sensitized, chronic inflammation leads to a louder call to respond to positive social cues.
The Magic Ingredient: The Tribe
This paper is powerful evidence for the role of perceived social safety and connectedness in healing inflammation. While I advocate for diet as the portal to wellness, I also acknowledge that there are some who may archetypally need to lead with community. In fact, in our online course, Vital Mind Reset, participants claim that community may be the most critical element of the healing journeys they report over the 44 days. The online group is an incredibly powerful healing space, and I am inspired, daily, by the exchanges.