We are hard-wired for connection. Recent findings show that when we feel social pain – a snub, a rejection or an unkind word – our emotional experience is as real as physical pain. Unfortunately, in our so-called Western culture we tend to venerate independence, often rejecting the notion of connecting with and relying on one another for emotional well-being – the very connection we are wired to need. But the findings are irrefutable: we are wired to be social beings, and that means interdependence.
What we mean by ‘wired’ is that there is a network of neurons in the brain that facilitates our connection with each other. It is biological. This neural network was discovered by psychiatrist and neurologist Constantin von Economo in 1926 as part of his research into neuroanatomy. He discovered two unusually long neurons in the prefrontal cortex (front of the brain), and that these neurons extend all the way into the gut. There they inform our instinctive social responses, such as when we automatically respond to cues like a smile of recognition or a familiar voice, a scowl of displeasure or a cry of pain.
This neural network also drives out need for social connection and acknowledgment, which brings me to the all too prevalent FOMO (fear of missing out). Although there are many theories as to why our current-day internet use – particularly social media – appears to be so addictive, this neural network we all have, suggests that it’s not the internet per se that is addictive, but the compulsion to connect, to avoid feeling alone, excluded, or out of the loop. The resulting anxiety that appears to becoming a problem we cannot ignore, is driven by this primal drive to connect and essentially have our existence recognised by others. Social media is feeding this instinct with instantaneous reward (or not) that keeps us checking in with increasing frequency such that we never get to fully recover before we feel the need to check again. This is the addictive cycle that, although originally stemming from a perfectly natural neural wiring, becomes imbalanced, perpetuating anxiety and stress – sadly much of which is the result of imagined rejection.
Combatting this by giving more priority to actual human connection will go some way to restoring the balance. All ‘in person’ contact with other human beings triggers biochemical responses, at every level of our bodies and brains. Electrically and chemically. Both the heart and the brain picks up signals as well as transmitting them. Within 12 feet of another person, our bodies start to pick up emotional energy from another person, layered by our own beliefs, memories, judgments and narratives we imagine, based on how we ourselves are feeling. In less than a millisecond we determine whether we feel defensive towards the person or trust the person, and whether he or she may add value to the interaction or conversation we are about to embark upon.
This ‘real-life’ way is how we are designed to connect and to develop relationships and (hopefully) healthy interdependences. Fully present, focused interaction, appreciating and savouring our connection with the other person, releases endorphins which counteract the addictive quick-fix reward-dopamine cycle, creating more balance and quality of relationship. Our capacity to ‘tune in’ to others, in person, also helps us to empathise and generate compassion and other balancing and self-regulating emotions that make us more fully present with those very connections we yearn for. The result is a healthier, happier and actually considerably more connected life.
A few practical tips:
Check the ‘Social’ in Screen-Time: 99% of the time, the reason for checking social media frequently is that, deep down, you just want to connect. Remind yourself of this each time you reach for your device; the connections you make there are largely superficial. Pause and ask yourself whether it will bring you closer to or further away from real-life connections?
Hacking real-life connection: Can your next use of social media be to foster your real-life relationships (i.e. arranging to meet for a coffee, or organise a gathering?) Try to avoid passively scanning feeds or engaging in social comparisons. Instead, explore how you can use technology more to deepen real-life connections: to spread happiness, gratitude, compassion, and the well-being that comes from in-person communication.
Check-in with Yourself: Throughout your day, at regular intervals, (for example whenever you reach for your phone) take your attention into your body and ask yourself what you feel. Identify the emotion, and the associated tension or felt sense. Let your body ‘tell you’.
Let it Be: Allow yourself to identify a feeling-word or an image to describe your body’s sensation. Accept it, and breathe into it. And only then, let it go – exhale and allow the tension to drop away. Then ask yourself if the emotion is telling you something you need to act on or maybe it’s not working for you? Do you need to change the way you feel (rather than escaping from it into technology)?
Choose it or ‘Lose it’: Use technology to help you choose how you feel rather than allowing tech to control you. Sign up for apps that help you get centred and activate that inner smile: Headspace is a good one to start with, as are the HeartMath apps, and Happify. Better still, use a journal and pen and write to process your emotions and thoughts.
The Real 5-2 Fast; a list of tips such as these cannot exist without the suggestion to take a technology fast. There is so much evidence now to show that regularly disconnecting from tech is good for your health and happiness that I will not elaborate much. Suffice it to say studies show it can improve your concentration, reduce stress and anxiety, and increase your overall well-being and mental health. Try giving yourself limits such as no devices by the table or in the bedroom. Better yet, turn them all off at the weekend, so you get 2 social-media-free days for every 5 you use! I promise you, it will make a significant improvement to your well-being and the well-being of all your connections and relationships.