The support of a strong community is fundamental to our wellbeing as humans. We need close, positive social bonds not only for our mental health, but for our physical health as well. Our immediate and extended families, our circle of friends, our neighborhoods, organizations, and health care networks all contribute more directly than we may imagine to our overall personal health. For people with complex chronic illness, strong community support may be even more necessary – a critical component of the healing process.
Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to feel isolated and lonely in today’s world. Family, friends and neighbors don’t rely on each other as much as in times past, especially in today’s big cities, and many of us are separated from those we love geographically. Creating community now takes effort. For those struggling with a chronic condition this can be a lot to ask, as it can take a fair amount of time and energy.
In this post, we’ll take a look at why strong social support is so important for overall health, and how your health care provider can contribute as part of your community, especially while you’re healing.
What is loneliness
Loneliness is defined as the discrepancy between what we want from our social connections and what we actually experience. People have varying needs for human connection; some of us need more solitude than others. But no matter our individual personality, we all need some level of community support. When we wish we had closer, deeper, and more meaningful connections with others, we feel lonely.
In 2020, Vivek H. Murthy, United States surgeon general from 2014-2017, published a book titled Together. His book describes in detail why, during his tenure as “the nation’s doctor”, an epidemic of national loneliness was one of his top priorities. According to Murthy, loneliness is becoming dangerously prevalent in modern life. Murthy writes that loneliness is contributing to negative health outcomes across race, gender and income spectrums, not just nationally but worldwide.
In his book, Murthy cites scientific research likening loneliness to hunger and thirst – a biological signal alerting us that something is out of balance in the body. He goes on to lament that loneliness can be compounded by feelings of shame – as though isolation indicates we’re unworthy of the connections we crave. This shame can prevent people from reaching out and creating the communities they need.
People experiencing chronic illness may also feel shame around illness itself, especially if they don’t have strong community support, including quality medical care. This can compound loneliness experienced by people with chronic conditions, adding another layer to the existing challenge of creating community.
Why is loneliness so hard on human health
Murthy describes how, over millions of years, humans evolved in groups. Groups allowed us to hunt more effectively, and to protect each other. If an ancient hominid found herself stranded out of reach of her community, she was profoundly at risk. Our bodies evolved strong warning signals alerting us to the dangers of being alone.
When we feel lonely, our stress hormones spike. Cortisol rises, and our nervous system switches to “fight or flight” mode – alert to potential dangers. This stress response is highly effective when lost on the tundra, but in modern life it can be damaging to our health, especially if we experience loneliness as a long-term stressor.
Under long-term stress, inflammation can increase system-wide. The limbic system, the emotional center of the brain responsible for our fight or flight response, can become stuck in a negative feedback loop that can be self-perpetuating and toxic – a chronic pattern of hypervigilance. Sleep is compromised, as is mental health, digestion, and basic cellular renewal. This is how long-term stress contributes to chronic illness and other negative health effects.
The positive effects of strong social connections on health
Just as loneliness and isolation increase stress and damage health outcomes, strong social bonds support our health and wellbeing. When we feel known, loved, and accepted by our social circle, our bodies give us strong, neurochemical signals that we’re safe. Dopamine, oxytocin and endorphins circulate. The limbic system can relax, and our nervous system can revert to “rest and digest” mode, where both connection with others and cellular healing is easier.
Murthy writes that pre-modern humans spent most of our time hanging out in each other’s company, in this nourishing state. He elaborates that this feeling of relaxation and safety in community increases creativity, optimism and general wellbeing. Murthy cites research by Dr. Julianne Holt-Lunstad in 2009 that found people with strong social connections were 50% less likely to die prematurely of any cause. Our bodies and our health are hard-wired to rely on companionship and community support.
Your health care network’s role
According to Murthy, it’s not just connections with close family and friends that support health. The wider community is also important, and this includes health-care networks. Especially for people healing chronic illness, a welcoming, empathetic health care team who know how to listen can be a critical component of healing.
Unfortunately, this is hard to come by in modern medicine! Conventional doctors are often pressured to spend only 15 minutes with each patient. This doesn’t leave a lot of time for deep listening, or for understanding complex chronic conditions. Both doctors and their patients are often frustrated with the lack of time allocated for quality interactions and care.
If you are healing from chronic illness, it may be worth the investment to look outside of the box. Doctors trained in functional or naturopathic medicine can often spend more time with their patients, becoming trusted allies in the healing process, not just pharmaceutical dispensaries. Smaller, alternative clinics also often specialize in treating complex chronic illness – taking the time to understand the multiple, unique layers of physical and psychological health that determine our quality of life. Receiving this kind of personal, quality care can lessen feelings of isolation and provide the support required for real healing. This is our goal at Dr. Grieder’s clinic.
Deep seated feelings of loneliness can be damaging to health, self-perpetuating, and more prevalent in modern life than we might imagine, especially for those struggling with complex chronic illness. Feelings of isolation are actually your body’s own heads up – alerting you to your biological need for strong social bonds and meaningful connection.
As we come to understand how important strong social bonds are to our communal health and wellbeing, we can reach out and support each other – within our families, and within wider social networks, including within health care. All our connections combine to create communities of empathy and kindness, within which human health can flourish.
Cacioppo S, Grippo AJ, London S, Goossens L, Cacioppo JT. Loneliness: clinical import and interventions. Perspect Psychol Sci. 2015;10(2):238-249. doi:10.1177/1745691615570616
Murthy M.D., Vivek H. Together. Harper Collins; 2020