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“No one is an island entire of itself…” This quote from a John Donne meditation, written in 1624 remains true to this day. We are better when we are connected to others. We are innately social and connection to others is a fundamental human need. We have a strong need to be loved and to belong. We connect with others through our family, friends, co-workers, neighbors, teams, clubs and more.


There has been quite a lot of research done in the area of social connections and the results indicate that being connected to others:

  • Improves physical health
  • Reduces feelings of anxiety and depression
  • Reduces pain
  • Increases longevity
  • Strengthens the immune system
  • Accelerates recovery from illness
  • Helps build resilience

Our relationships, connections and social activity impact our overall wellness-affecting our physical, work, emotional, spiritual and intellectual wellness and can positively or negatively affect our health and well-being. Social connections are actually more important to our overall health than smoking cessation, sedentary activity and blood pressure control! Wow!

Unfortunately, loneliness and isolation have been on the rise for many years. On top of that trend, in early 2020, along came COVID-19 with stay-at-home orders, social distancing, curfews, job loss, and illness. The pandemic has wreaked havoc with our need to connect with others. About 30% of people in the US live alone – so potentially they have had nearly no human contact for many months. Some surveys have indicated increases in loneliness and emotional distress since the first few months of the pandemic.

There is research to back up the idea that isolation is not healthy and to emphasize how to combat this issue. One study by Freeman et al., interviews people with MS and asks about their experiences of isolation. Not surprisingly, they find that social isolation in MS may start because of physical restrictions (i.e., fatigue, incontinence, etc.) but are strongly impacted by social experiences and the emotional responses to those restrictions. Overall, the study describes how isolation has the effect of encouraging a sense of powerlessness, lack of choice and lack of control over daily life. To combat these negative effects there are approaches to ease the feelings of isolation, such as building a resilient attitude, developing a positive mind-set, and searching out support from specialist MS centers, family, and care partners.  However, this study also highlights an important point, that social interaction is critical but most impactful when the interactions help make people feel a sense of purpose and know they have a place in the world.

Before we end it is important to emphasize the important role that physical activity and exercise can have to facilitate and enhance social activity. The mantra these days is to ‘sit less and move more’, on a daily basis. One way to stay motivated and stay active is to invite friends to be active with you. In the current pandemic this may take some creativity like using computer technology to participate in a virtual group exercise program, for example, or wearing a mask and going for a walk with a friend. The key here is to be creative and adapt the activities you really enjoy by doing them with friends, this can be invigorating mentally and physically.

Fortunately, there are numerous ways to improve our connections and stay healthy and active. Small changes and being open to new choices can make a big difference. Don’t be afraid to make the first move, invite a friend for a conversation, a walk, or even a virtual meal, and reap the rewards of social activity.

 

References:

Freeman J, Gorst T, Gunn H, and Robens S. “A non-person to the rest of the world”: experiences of social isolation amongst severely impaired people with multiple sclerosis. Disability and Rehabilitation. 2020; 42:16, 2295-2303, DOI:10.1080/09638288.2018.1557267.

House, JS et al. Social relationships and health. Science. 1988; 24:540-545.

Koelmel E, Hughes AJ, Alschuler KN. Resilience mediates the longitudinal relationship between social support and mental health outcomes in multiple sclerosis. Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. 2017; 98:1139-48. doi: 10.1016/j.apmr.2016.09.127.

Motl R, Ehde D, Shinto L, Fernhall B, LaRocca N, and Zackowski K. Health behaviors, wellness, and multiple sclerosis amid COVID-19. Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. 2020; Oct:101(10):1839-1841. DOI: 10.1016/j.apmr.2020.06.001.

Seppala E. Social connection boosts health even when you are isolated. Psychology Today March 23,2020.

Seppala E. Connectedness and health: The science of social connection. The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. May 8, 2014. Accessed 1/28/2021.