Build Your Community and Your Body

BUILD YOUR COMMUNITY AND YOUR BODY

The humans of 2018 are facing a strange conundrum: we have more vehicles for connection than ever, but are reporting more loneliness than ever. This has profound impacts on our health–both mental and physical–and effects the way our brains perceive the threats and safety around us.

According to recent data from the Cigna, of the 20,000 people surveyed:

  • When asked how often they feel like no one knows them well, more than half of the respondents (54%) surveyed said they feel that way always or sometimes
  • 56% of people surveyed report sometimes or always feeling like the people around them are not necessarily with them
  • Gen Zers (adults ages 18-22) surveyed have a total average loneliness score of 48.3 – granting them the title of the loneliest generation – while scores gradually drop as respondents continue to age, culminating in a total average loneliness score of 38.6 for the least lonely group, the Greatest Generation (adults ages 72+)
  • Students have higher loneliness scores than retirees
  • Roughly one in four respondents rarely/never feel as though there are people who really understand them
  • One in five rarely, if ever, report feeling close to people

When asked how frequently they have meaningful in-person social interactions (e.g., having an extended conversation with a friend, spending quality time with family):

  • 53% of respondents report connecting with others at least daily
  • 29%report having meaningful interactions on a weekly basis,
  • Just under one in ten report having these types of exchanges monthly

Interestingly, loneliness scores differ when analyzed across age/generations, job or work status, and use of technology. But these numbers are just that–numbers. They’re data points from which we can analyze and judge. But what about all the things we can’t quantify? What about the increased perception of pain that people experience when they’re less connected? What about the way this isolation affects our food choices, and they way we perceive our health, body, and its connection to our planet?  Or the disintegration of community that arises when we feel so inherently separate? And as that community around us becomes nonexistent, how does the landscape within us respond?

The Social Baseline Theory

“The social baseline theory proposes that organisms are adapted to social ecology, more so than any physical ecology. Consequently, the social proximity to other individuals (characterized by familiarity, joint attention, shared goals, and interdependence) should be considered as the default or baseline assumption of the human brain.” -Decety 2014

The social baseline theory (SBT), postulates that the presence of other people helps optimize the way our internal networks respond to the world around us. Human connection and support helps individuals conserve metabolically costly resources by regulating emotion with social cues. Many studies now demonstrate that a robust social support network is a key element to mental and physical health; whereas a lack of one demonstrates harmful consequences. Healthy social connection helps give our bodies cues of safety, which in turn optimizes our emotional regulation such that we perceive less threat, feel less pain, are healthier, happier, and can “attach” to others in more meaningful ways.

According to Decety et al., a person’s attachment style moderates the benefits of social support. Insecurely attached people report less perceived social support and regard supportive others as less reliable–making it far more difficult for people to help that person.  Whereas securely attached individuals report lower state anxiety levels, the ability to rely on others, and thus are more likely to benefit from social support and empathy.

In a world where being independent,  tough, and non-emotional is highly regarded, these more healthy behaviors may be more difficult to exhibit in some ways. If we live in a culture where sitting in a room full of people where everyone is on their phone is the norm, and “needing” someone you love is “clingy,” finding this healthy network is certainly a challenge, but not impossible.

The Free Energy Principle

The free energy principle is a model to explain the way that social and contextual cues can alter our sense of reality and help our brain better regulate our emotions and feelings about the world around us. This principle proposes that because humans are an animal that relies on the external world to maintain homeostasis, our brains are constantly using feedback loops to determine if what it’s perceiving/thinking is accurate or not. In other words, our body relies on beliefs about hidden states in our environment in order to determine how to feel.

“The signals our sensory systems receive from the outside world are often ambiguous. Such ambiguity can have negative consequences for humans and other animals that need to use their environment to maintain their bodily homeostasis (e.g., avoid cold climates, eat safe food, etc.). According to this framework, the brain attempts to deal with the tension between a variable world and the need for homeostasis by constructing inferential hypotheses (i.e., “generative models”) of the hidden causes of sensory input it receives from the environment so as to be able to predict the changing world to a certain extent. The brain further uses errors in the accuracy of such predictive representations to improve its own models. In other words, the nervous system compares its predictions with the feedback it actually receives from the physical and social environments.” -Decety 2014

This model illustrates important phenomena regarding people in pain:

  1. People in pain with no social support network perceive more pain (nociception)
  2. People in pain with a loving support network can perceive less pain
  3. People in pain who receive confirmation feedback from their support network can feel more pain.

In other words, someone who is experiencing pain and told by someone they love/trust “yes this is terrible” can feel more pain. OR if someone in pain is treated with positive support by someone they love/trust, it can make them perceive less pain. It’s as if the brain is saying “oh we’re wrong, this threat isn’t as bad as we thought according to our feedback.” That positive feedback can in turn alter interoception.

Additionally, the free energy principle shows us that the ultimate goal of the brain is to minimize its prediction errors in perception and in action, and that the brain wishes to sample the world to generate more sensory evidence that may fulfill its predictions. This means that our brain might look for things to confirm its biases.

Thus, we can postulate that a human being needs empathic and supportive care, but one that minimizes threat perception and highlights cues of safety. The effects of such a community would be profound. When considering both the social baseline theory and the free energy principle in tandem, it is clear why humans need interdependent, supportive, but positive communities to thrive within. We need cues of safety.

Action Steps

The pain of unmet needs rears its head often in our society. Binge eating, substance abuse, alcohol, chronic pain, insomnia, and hours spent sitting in front of blue screens are robbing us of our needs, joys, and loves. But there are things we can do to heal.

Time away from technology is necessary. Time in the sun, with the earth, and with others is critical. Movement, connection, nourishment, sleep, and the ability to rest, breath, and rotate are all basic needs of a human.

Building small communities around ourselves is possible when we open ourselves to the opportunity. Joining a gym is a great place to start–sweating with others through challenges is good for our bodies and our minds. Additional communities include things like hiking clubs, book clubs, cooking classes, running clubs, taking new courses, meditation groups, or even bringing friends together who have never met.

These new communities can then spend time together away from media distractions. And we all need that. Strategies for this down time might look like carving out weekend hours away from phones and television, setting times–such as during a hike or workout–where you turn your phone off, or maybe establishing Sunday dinners  that are “phone-free.” And very importantly, set time limits where phones, computer, and television get turned off and put away before bed.

BUILD YOUR COMMUNITY AND YOUR BODY

The humans of 2018 are facing a strange conundrum: we have more vehicles for connection than ever, but are reporting more loneliness than ever. This has profound impacts on our health–both mental and physical–and effects the way our brains perceive the threats and safety around us.

According to recent data from the Cigna, of the 20,000 people surveyed:

  • When asked how often they feel like no one knows them well, more than half of the respondents (54%) surveyed said they feel that way always or sometimes
  • 56% of people surveyed report sometimes or always feeling like the people around them are not necessarily with them
  • Gen Zers (adults ages 18-22) surveyed have a total average loneliness score of 48.3 – granting them the title of the loneliest generation – while scores gradually drop as respondents continue to age, culminating in a total average loneliness score of 38.6 for the least lonely group, the Greatest Generation (adults ages 72+)
  • Students have higher loneliness scores than retirees
  • Roughly one in four respondents rarely/never feel as though there are people who really understand them
  • One in five rarely, if ever, report feeling close to people

When asked how frequently they have meaningful in-person social interactions (e.g., having an extended conversation with a friend, spending quality time with family):

  • 53% of respondents report connecting with others at least daily
  • 29%report having meaningful interactions on a weekly basis,
  • Just under one in ten report having these types of exchanges monthly

Interestingly, loneliness scores differ when analyzed across age/generations, job or work status, and use of technology. But these numbers are just that–numbers. They’re data points from which we can analyze and judge. But what about all the things we can’t quantify? What about the increased perception of pain that people experience when they’re less connected? What about the way this isolation affects our food choices, and they way we perceive our health, body, and its connection to our planet?  Or the disintegration of community that arises when we feel so inherently separate? And as that community around us becomes nonexistent, how does the landscape within us respond?

The Social Baseline Theory

“The social baseline theory proposes that organisms are adapted to social ecology, more so than any physical ecology. Consequently, the social proximity to other individuals (characterized by familiarity, joint attention, shared goals, and interdependence) should be considered as the default or baseline assumption of the human brain.” -Decety 2014

The social baseline theory (SBT), postulates that the presence of other people helps optimize the way our internal networks respond to the world around us. Human connection and support helps individuals conserve metabolically costly resources by regulating emotion with social cues. Many studies now demonstrate that a robust social support network is a key element to mental and physical health; whereas a lack of one demonstrates harmful consequences. Healthy social connection helps give our bodies cues of safety, which in turn optimizes our emotional regulation such that we perceive less threat, feel less pain, are healthier, happier, and can “attach” to others in more meaningful ways.

According to Decety et al., a person’s attachment style moderates the benefits of social support. Insecurely attached people report less perceived social support and regard supportive others as less reliable–making it far more difficult for people to help that person.  Whereas securely attached individuals report lower state anxiety levels, the ability to rely on others, and thus are more likely to benefit from social support and empathy.

In a world where being independent,  tough, and non-emotional is highly regarded, these more healthy behaviors may be more difficult to exhibit in some ways. If we live in a culture where sitting in a room full of people where everyone is on their phone is the norm, and “needing” someone you love is “clingy,” finding this healthy network is certainly a challenge, but not impossible.

The Free Energy Principle

The free energy principle is a model to explain the way that social and contextual cues can alter our sense of reality and help our brain better regulate our emotions and feelings about the world around us. This principle proposes that because humans are an animal that relies on the external world to maintain homeostasis, our brains are constantly using feedback loops to determine if what it’s perceiving/thinking is accurate or not. In other words, our body relies on beliefs about hidden states in our environment in order to determine how to feel.

“The signals our sensory systems receive from the outside world are often ambiguous. Such ambiguity can have negative consequences for humans and other animals that need to use their environment to maintain their bodily homeostasis (e.g., avoid cold climates, eat safe food, etc.). According to this framework, the brain attempts to deal with the tension between a variable world and the need for homeostasis by constructing inferential hypotheses (i.e., “generative models”) of the hidden causes of sensory input it receives from the environment so as to be able to predict the changing world to a certain extent. The brain further uses errors in the accuracy of such predictive representations to improve its own models. In other words, the nervous system compares its predictions with the feedback it actually receives from the physical and social environments.” -Decety 2014

This model illustrates important phenomena regarding people in pain:

  1. People in pain with no social support network perceive more pain (nociception)
  2. People in pain with a loving support network can perceive less pain
  3. People in pain who receive confirmation feedback from their support network can feel more pain.

In other words, someone who is experiencing pain and told by someone they love/trust “yes this is terrible” can feel more pain. OR if someone in pain is treated with positive support by someone they love/trust, it can make them perceive less pain. It’s as if the brain is saying “oh we’re wrong, this threat isn’t as bad as we thought according to our feedback.” That positive feedback can in turn alter interoception.

Additionally, the free energy principle shows us that the ultimate goal of the brain is to minimize its prediction errors in perception and in action, and that the brain wishes to sample the world to generate more sensory evidence that may fulfill its predictions. This means that our brain might look for things to confirm its biases.

Thus, we can postulate that a human being needs empathic and supportive care, but one that minimizes threat perception and highlights cues of safety. The effects of such a community would be profound. When considering both the social baseline theory and the free energy principle in tandem, it is clear why humans need interdependent, supportive, but positive communities to thrive within. We need cues of safety.

Action Steps

The pain of unmet needs rears its head often in our society. Binge eating, substance abuse, alcohol, chronic pain, insomnia, and hours spent sitting in front of blue screens are robbing us of our needs, joys, and loves. But there are things we can do to heal.

Time away from technology is necessary. Time in the sun, with the earth, and with others is critical. Movement, connection, nourishment, sleep, and the ability to rest, breath, and rotate are all basic needs of a human.

Building small communities around ourselves is possible when we open ourselves to the opportunity. Joining a gym is a great place to start–sweating with others through challenges is good for our bodies and our minds. Additional communities include things like hiking clubs, book clubs, cooking classes, running clubs, taking new courses, meditation groups, or even bringing friends together who have never met.

These new communities can then spend time together away from media distractions. And we all need that. Strategies for this down time might look like carving out weekend hours away from phones and television, setting times–such as during a hike or workout–where you turn your phone off, or maybe establishing Sunday dinners  that are “phone-free.” And very importantly, set time limits where phones, computer, and television get turned off and put away before bed.

2018-11-04T16:57:56+00:00

About the Author:

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Erin is a graduate student working toward a Masters of Science in Nutrition and Health Promotion, as well as completing the Didactic Program in Dietetics to become a Registered Dietitian. She’s also a Precision Nutrition Certified Nutrition Coach and Certified Sports Nutritionist.