Here’s a big bite of truth. Humans are social animals. Even the lone wolves among us, the introverts, and the rebels with and without causes are, at the core, social animals. The reason is simple – human beings, while carrying around one of the biggest mammalian brains, are not the strongest, fastest, or (stripped of weaponry) even close to the most dangerous, and this is especially true of human infants and toddlers. Our babies are some of the weakest in the animal world; they cannot survive on their own. Our survival as a species required social bonds.
Just because we’re not living in the same world our original ancestors lived in doesn’t mean that this core truth, the importance of social connection, has changed.
Isolation is not a safe state of being for humans. The COVID-19 Pandemic – lockdowns, quarantines, shelter-at-home and stay-at-home orders, and social distancing shed lots of light on the dangers of isolation. Reports of increased anxiety, depression, substance abuse, overdose, and suicide were woven into concerns about the virus itself throughout 2020 and 2021, and the impact on mental health continues to be a hot news and research topic.
Humans are simply not meant to be all by themselves for any prolonged period of time.
In our years of practice in the field of mental and behavioral health, we’ve met lots of people who’ve argued against this fact. Many of our clients have told us they are better off alone, that they don’t get along well with people, or that they don’t trust others. Resistance to suggestions for group work, building social networks, and engaging in social activities is not at all uncommon.
We get it. Social connection is SO important that especially if our early history has been filled with damaged and damaging bonds, building walls against connection seems like the only way to go. It can be very scary to think about making social connections, let alone stepping into social waters when our memories of connection are colored by suffering. It can be a huge leap of faith.
It is a leap worth taking, and we want to give you some ideas for moving toward the connections that can help improve your mental health, assist you in maintaining abstinence from substances, and increase your resilience. Here are some suggestions for moving gently from a total lone wolf toward more connection.
- Social media isn’t all bad. Use it to connect to people and groups who share your interests and goals. Social media can also provide a support network that motivates you toward therapeutic goals like treatment engagement, substance abstinence, and healthy lifestyle choices. Social media has benefits but approach it mindfully with a focus on your health and welfare.
- Say hello to your neighbors and chat with your workmates. Research suggests that while these connections may not be deep bonds, they can help support your overall mental health.
- Create or join a knitting circle, writing group, book club, choir, or other hobby-related groups. Collective bonding, even if it’s light and activity focused is good for mental health and resilience.
- Spread your social wings to include. Try adding one new social contact this week. It doesn’t have to be a deep connection. Consider saying hello to the cashier at your local grocery store. Having what’s called social-network diversity is good for your mental health. You don’t have to start big though, you can start with one person.
- Build and strengthen healthy relationships with people who see you as a whole person – someone with talents and strengths, struggles and weaknesses.5 Whether these relationships are with friends and family members that have been in your life for a long time or peer-support people like 12-step sponsors and self-help group peers, it’s important to connect with people who see you for who you are, not who they wish you would be, and you need to be able to share who you are, not who you think you are supposed to be. Honestly, this is one of the powerful things about AA and groups like it. Shared experiences and shared understanding can open the door to authentic connection.
- If you are interested in engaging in therapy, look for someone that you connect and feel comfortable with. This relationship may be professional; that doesn’t make the connection less important.
We understand that everybody’s different. Some people get lots of energy from being around people, while others find more energy on their own. We’re not debating that. We’re also aware of and empathetic about the suffering that is caused by painful, unhealthy, and abusive relationships and how scary it can be to move toward social connection when memories of those things are strong.
Still, let us assert once more – humans are social animals. We need a connection to be healthy. We encourage you to do whatever you can to build your social network, and if this is a painful stumbling block for you, reach out for help. Connecting with a therapist can be an important first step.
1Naslund, J.A., Bondre, A., Torous, J. et al. Social Media and Mental Health: Benefits, Risks, and Opportunities for Research and Practice. J. technol. behav. sci. 5, 245–257 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s41347-020-00134-x
2McGaffin, B. J., Deane, F. P., Kelly, P. J., & Blackman, R. J. (2018). Social support and mental health during recovery from drug and alcohol problems. Addiction Research & Theory, 26(5), 386–395. https://doi.org/10.1080/16066359.2017.1421178
3Pearce, E., Launay, J., MacCarron, P., & Dunbar, R. I. M. (2017). Tuning in to others: Exploring relational and collective bonding in singing and non-singing groups over time. Psychology of Music, 45(4), 496–512. https://doi.org/10.1177/0305735616667543
4Windsor, T. D., Rioseco, P., Fiori, K. L., Curtis, R. G., & Booth, H. (2016). Structural and functional social network attributes moderate the association of self-rated health with mental health in midlife and older adults. International Psychogeriatrics, 28(1), 49-61.
5,6Pettersen, H., Landheim, A., Skeie, I., Biong, S., Brodahl, M., Oute, J., & Davidson, L. (2019). How Social Relationships Influence Substance Use Disorder Recovery: A Collaborative Narrative Study. Substance Abuse: Research and Treatment. https://doi.org/10.1177/1178221819833379
Dr. Allaire received his Bachelors of Science in Biology from the University of Houston, as Valedictorian of the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, and his Medical Doctorate from Baylor College of Medicine, where he served as Chief Resident. He is the medical monitor for the Physician Counseling Committee of the Harris County Medical Society and the Medical Director of Serenity House Detox. Dr. Allaire specializes in medically assisted detox cases, treating patients in recovery from addiction or other mental health disorders, the medical assessment and monitoring of patients with addictive disorders, medical care related to eating disorders and the medical treatment of patients with mental health conditions.