What’s one of the most accessible and impactful wellness practices we can adopt? As a holistic psychologist, I’ve both seen and studied how cultivating more connection in our lives can significantly boost both mental and physical health.
Think about it: As humans, our internal system is made of trillions of connections. Our cells, our mind and body, and all of our internal systems are in constant communication, connecting with each other. Connection is literally how we function and thrive as a human species.
This impact of connection extends far past our internal physiology into our external world and interpersonal lives as well. In fact, fostering connections to other people, to our surrounding environment, to nature, and to our own thoughts are all equally crucial for our wellbeing.
Here, I dive into the what can stand in the way of creating these connections, and concrete ways to connect more to yourself, others, and the world around you in your day-to-day life.
The mental and physical benefits of connection.
Connection amplifies our health. When we feel connected to others our bodies release the bonding chemical oxytocin, which in turn triggers the release of feel-good chemical serotonin. This activates our reward circuitry of the brain, creating a beneficial effect and an enjoyable experience in our entire system.
In fact, increased levels of oxytocin and serotonin may help counter stress, ease anxiety, and potentially even reduce depression risk. This makes a whole lot of sense when you consider the fact that loneliness and isolation have been associated with an increased risk of depression and even earlier death and heart disease.
Serotonin, specifically, is also believed to play a role in regulating digestion and appetite, sleep, memory, and sexual health. Hence, taking steps to get more connected is a powerful way to help boost overall mental and physical health.
The emotion that stands in the way of connection (and how to counter it).
Fear can get in the way of creating connection. When we experience fear, our brain is in survival mode, not connective mode. Before we can connect, our brain needs to feel safe. In order to feel connected, we have to help regulate, or quiet, the typically overactive fight-flight-freeze limbic response of the brain.
The good news: We can train our brain to be regulated and connected by activating our prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex regulates emotions, creates rational thought, and allows us to feel calm. The prefrontal cortex is the newest part of our brain both evolutionarily and individually, so it requires extra intentional practice and training to teach it to override our fearful brain. When we can start to feel more in control of our brain’s reactions, this allows us to connect more often and meaningfully to ourselves, each other, and the world around us. This connective way of life augments both individual and collective health.
3 ways to cultivate more connection on a daily basis.
Here are some of the simplest, most effective ways to prime yourself to make more meaningful connections.
1. Express gratitude every day.
Thankfulness is one way to actively train our prefrontal cortex of the brain and counter fear. By repeatedly asking the brain to spot reasons to be thankful, it will strengthen the rational and thoughtful capacities of the brain. This simple act of being thankful inherently reduces reactivity to threat and stress and creates a natural override of the brain’s stress response center. When the brain’s stress center deactivates, it also reduces our stress hormone cortisol throughout our body. This allows us to feel less stressed and more regulated. When our stress response is down, it facilitates the parts of our brain that promote connectivity to come online.
2. Breathe deeply.
Deep intentional breathing reminds our brain that we are safe, and therefore, connects our minds to our bodies and our bodies to our environment. By taking long deep breaths, we facilitate a full oxygen exchange with our environment, which slows the heartbeat and reduces our blood pressure. These effects allow our entire physiology to feel more calm and connected to ourselves and our environment.
3. Smile and laugh together.
When we exchange smiles or laughter with another person, we instantly feel more connected. Research shows that the premotor cortex of our brain is activatedwhen we see another person smile, which triggers our own smiling muscles in our face. This effect is due to mirror neurons, which stimulate the same response in our brain and body that we see in another. Smiling is one of the most effective and simplest ways to create this connective effect. So, instead of staring down at your phone or evading the gaze of another passersby, try giving your coworker, neighbor, or fellow grocery shopper a quick smile and hello—they won’t be able to help experiencing this moment of connection.
Prioritizing connection doesn’t have to be complicated.
Ultimately, we are social beings who are made to be in connection with each other and the world around us. By connecting to our body, mind, environment, nature, spirituality, community, and each other, we have infinite access points for healing and thriving. And while there are all sorts of strategies to connect (thankfulness, mindfulness, socializing, smiling, praying, spending time in nature, etc), we must remember the most fundamental part of connection is to simply take the time and intention to notice how connected we already are on the inside and the outside, to all the things and all people around us.