A patient of mine once told me “It’s a lonely word, isolation, on bad days it seems to envelop me like a smothering blanket cutting off sustaining air. Once I liked to be alone with my books and music, then, private time away from people and pressures provided nourishment for my soul.… Solitude was precious because it balanced the pressures of days spent dealing with people…Now…at times I feel imprisoned, like Rapunzel in the castle tower, without the advantage of long hair to slide down.… It is difficult obtaining help when one is proud and independent”. This strong and determined woman felt excluded and lonely and was finding it hard to break out of her isolation and feel connected to the world outside.
In the Chinese view we are all connected and are all part of the web of life. The entire universe is governed by the laws of the Dao, and all of nature forms one complete whole. All things, animal, vegetable and mineral and all processes are connected and everything influences everything else in some way or another. In this fluid, changing and incredible web we are all part of each other and thus any sense of separation we have is actually an illusion. When we are under the illusion that we are not connected to each other this sense of separation can lead to feelings of alienation and despair and, research shows, symptoms of ill health. Conversely when we become aware of and feel connected we feel better –physically and mentally.
Research shows that good mental and physical health depends on a support system and that stressors can be endured more easily when you have a strong supportive network of family and friends. In one large study, conducted in Alameda County, California, death rates in a group of 7,000 people were found to be highest among those who had the fewest relationships — even when factors such as socioeconomic status, cigarette smoking, and other health-related factors were taken into consideration. Isolation was linked to higher death rates from heart disease, cancer, and all other illnesses, as well as suicide and accidental death.1.
In another study health psychologists Sarah Pressman, PhD, Sheldon Cohen, PhD, and fellow researchers at Carnegie Mellon University’s Laboratory for the Study of Stress, Immunity and Disease, found that social isolation and feelings of loneliness each independently weakened first-year students’ immunity.
Immune response was most weakened by the combination of loneliness and small social networks, an obvious health stress facing shy new students who have yet to build their friendship circles.2.
Knowing that connection is the key to good health we need to give ourselves permission to communicate our needs to others and feel OK about reaching out to ask friends and family for support and a hug. Take the decision to connect and ask for help when you feel lonely and thus improve the quality of your life. Instead of wasting energy pushing others away learn to ask and welcome help when it is given.
And as much as we need to be loved and supported we are also capable of giving love and support.
The stress pioneer – Hans Selye found that the best way to be loved was to act lovingly towards others. He described this as “altruistic egoism” Whatever we put out is mirrored back to us – when we extend love and care we will receive the same in return. Often it helps to focus on others rather than on ourselves. This can be done in so many ways –join a campaign or a support group, get involved in neighbourhood activities, or get yourself a pet.
Research has shown that heart attack victims who have pets live longer. Even watching a tank full of tropical fish may lower blood pressure, at least temporarily. A St Louis University study of 92 patients hospitalised in coronary care units for angina or heart attack found that those who owned pets were more likely to be alive a year later than those who did not. 3.
We can all do something, in our own way, to reach out and make a difference to the world. Taking the focus off ourselves and spending time helping and loving others helps us to feel valued, included and contented. Get yourself connected by both giving and receiving support and enjoy the benefits that come with knowing that you are an integral part of the web of life.
The Buddhist Metta Bhavana practice is one that cultivates loving kindness. Eventually we want to become like a steady fire, a flame of emotional warmth that will embrace any sentient being that we become aware of. The practice is in five stages. Sit comfortably and imagine a flame of love in your heart that burns with a soft but clear flame. Extend this out firstly to
- Yourself – feel the warmth expand and fill your body.
- A good friend – feel the warmth radiate out to him/her.
- A “neutral” person – someone we don’t have any strong feelings for.
- A “difficult” person – someone we have conflicts with or feelings of ill will towards.
- All sentient beings.
- Dossey, Meaning and Medicine, Bantam (November 1, 1992)
- Pressman, S. D., Cohen, S., Miller, G.E., Barkin, A., Rabin, B. S., Treanor, J. J. Loneliness, Social Network Size and Immune Response to Influenza Vaccination in College Freshmen, Health Psychology. (2005).3.
- Journal of Gerontology. ( 2002)
This article first appeared in Positive Health Magazine. See www.positivehealth.com
Vicki Mckenna trained at The College of Traditional Chinese Acupuncture in Leamington Spa with Professor Worsley from 1981 gaining her Lic Ac. in 1984 and has been practicing acupuncture in Scotland since then. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org