If There Was Ever a Time to Strengthen Your Connectivity, It Is Now
I received this pithy text on April 4, 2020 and I had no idea initially who it was from:
Good Lord! Who is this? Finally, a flashback. On January 12, 2020, I was standing in front of a bookstand in the park marveling at its painted turquoise exterior covered with green and blue buttons. That’s when Carol, an energetic 78-year-old woman came along carrying an armful of books and began to restack the stand. She was bubbly and vivacious. We spoke like we had known each other forever and exchanged telephone numbers at the end. When I called Carol later, we talked again as if we were old friends.
Carol lived alone, and she understood that during this period of “social distancing” she needed to strengthen her connectivity. Her text let me know that I was on her “hit list,” although we had met only once and spoken for no more than twenty minutes.
Carol is right. This is the time to socially reconnect and strengthen connections. Human beings are social creatures. Connections are vital to our survival. Connections help insulate us against stress. And who would disagree that this COVID-19 era is a stressful one that has placed our bodies on high alert.
Our connections protect us from the harmful effects of chronic stress. Stress triggers the sympathetic nervous system. You may recall from my last blog that the sympathetic nervous system stimulates our stress response, also known as our fight-or-flight response, and the parasympathetic nervous system stimulates our relaxation response, also known as our rest-and-digest response (it kicks in, for example, after eating, during sleep, or when we’re sexually aroused). These two systems make up the autonomic nervous system. We can help control the sympathetic nervous system response by strengthening our connections and expanding our social networks.
As a trained Integrative Health Coach, I work on developing a connection with my clients, which has become quite natural when I meet most people. I do this by getting them to relax. That means also being able to control my body so I can feel relaxed as well in their presence.
When you know you are being genuinely listened to and understood, you relax. The body’s parasympathetic nervous system is triggered, making you feel safe and open. Empathy and compassion increase when you feel safe. And, if I may let you in on a secret, your therapist, your hairstylist, your barber, your spiritual leader, or anyone who listens deeply to you, knows the power of listening.
So, how can you strengthen your connectivity and expand your social network while adhering to CDC COVID-19 guidelines? Here are some ways and tools:
Use social media that will allow you to see the actual person. Much of our emotional state is conveyed through non-verbal cues. My friend Carol said she was Facetiming, so I facetimed her. Zoom is another way you can connect with family and friends.
In ordinary times, Facebook is a good tool, but in these extraordinary times, it is not the best. For FB tends to be a place where we look for “likes” and for posts that amuse us or use emojis to express our feelings; it is not normally the place where we can have deep conversations.
You should prepare to expend more effort, to go deeper to forge quality connections through social media.
Engage a Pen Pal
For forty years I had pen pals. I started these relationships at a time when we looked forward to receiving letters, not bills. I had friends from all over the world, but I stayed in touch with only one throughout my early adult life.
But I thought pen pals were a thing of the past until I met a 38-year-old woman at a social gathering who told me she had online pen pals. “I have pals of different ages and in different stages of their life. And even with that we can find common ground and still make a connection,” she says. One caution I would give is that if you are interested in having a pen pal, be careful to avoid anyone who asks you for money. If a potential pen pal does, it’s okay to obey your sympathetic nervous system and run, like Forrest Gump.
Believe it or not, aerobic exercise can strengthen our social muscles. Physiologically, exercise can relax the body. As a result, it downregulates the sympathetic nervous system and upgrades the parasympathetic nervous system. Have you noticed that you feel more relaxed after a workout, walk, or run? Because you feel relaxed, you tend to be more open and empathetic. You need these qualities for learning to deepen your connections.
For some, connecting is challenging, even if it is with family members. That’s why practicing breathing and getting to know how your body feels when stressed and relaxed are important. The body shapes the mind, and the mind shapes behavior. So, do not underestimate breathing—something we take for granted. By practicing breathing, you activate a nerve in the body called the vagus nerve that is located in the parasympathetic nervous system. The vagus nerve “runs from the brain through the face and thorax to the abdomen. It is a mixed nerve that contains parasympathetic fibers.” When you deep breathe, extending your exhale, you trigger the parasympathetic nervous system. This system as mentioned in my last blog is what helps us to relax. It is one of the most powerful ways to activate the body’s relaxation response system. But you must practice. Hence, exercises such as yoga and qigong have been effective ways to help people relax.
Here are two ways to practice breathing, from Mindfulness in Plain English by VH Gunaratana. The second method can be more challenging for some:
a) While breathing in, count “one, one, one, one…” until the lungs are full of fresh air. While breathing out, count “two, two, two, two…” until the lungs are empty of fresh air. Then while breathing in again count “three, three, three, three…” until the lungs are full again and while breathing out count again “four, four, four, four…” until the lungs are empty of fresh air. Count up to ten and repeat as many times as necessary to keep the mind focused on the breath.
b) The second method of counting is counting rapidly up to ten. While counting “one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine and ten” breathe in and again while counting “one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine and ten” breathe out. This means in one inhaling you should count up to ten and in one exhaling you should count up to ten. Repeat this way of counting as many times as necessary to focus the mind on the breath.
In a previous blog, I said “there is more to life than COVID-19,” and that remains true. It is still important to practice physical distancing, but it is important more than ever to strengthen your connectivity ties to family and friends through technology. This may mean learning a different way of connecting. So, take a deep breath, exhale. You can do this. Write me and let me know how you are doing. We are here for you here at Friends Life Care.
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