As an introvert and sensitive person, I am familiar with the daydream of escaping to a quiet cabin in the woods or a rustic beach house to relax or work in solitude. As a suburban mother of three, I know the bliss of having an empty, clean, calm home. As someone who has been let down by loved ones, I also know the comfort of withdrawing in to my inner world to recover from or avoid rejection.
As a sensitive person and introvert writer, I advocate for solitude and alone time to recharge and create. As a personal coach, friend and fellow human, I also advocate for connection and interaction. All of the above scenarios could be just as soothing and wonderful with the addition of safe, secure people/relationships. I spent years studying introversion. I have also spent years studying relationships.
Love and connection are mysterious and scientific
As much as we need rejuvenating alone time, we also need restorative connection (or co-regulation as the scientists call it). I believe in the beauty of love and sweetness, but I’ve also seen the neuroscience behind such feelings. I peeked behind the curtain and saw facts to back up the euphoria. I do not want to take away any of the magic. I want to convey how biologically critical safety and connection with other humans is.
Lethal jolt to our nervous system
I recently listened to an interview on Jayson Gaddis’ Smart Couple Podcast. The interview was with Dr. Stephen Porges, a neuroscientist at Indiana University Bloomington and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. One comment Dr. Porges made, really got my antennae up. He said there are two cues our autonomic nervous system views as lethal. They are restraint and isolation. I’m going to focus on the isolation piece.
I’ve read studies that demonstrate how our brains and nervous system feel social exclusion the same as they feel physical pain. I know the average person only lasts about three days in total isolation before showing signs of depression or even psychosis.
Our neurological pathways form based on positive and negative interactions we experience. If we feel safe and secure within a relationship (lots of responsiveness, reassuring and consistency), we trust people and feel confident about interacting. If we have experienced rejection, unavailability and inconsistency too often, we tend to withdraw or become extremely self-reliant. Our brains build connections fortifying the expectations either way.
Do we really have quality time with our people?
We may think we are good at balancing alone time with people time. Are we truly connecting with others or are we just in the same space?
Dr. Porges brought up a couple of interesting points he sees contributing to society’s growing feelings of isolation and anxiety. One is the common occurrence of families dispersing within their own homes. Our homes are big enough now for everyone to have their own room. Mom may work in her home office. Dad may have his ‘man cave’ downstairs. The kids each have a bedroom or playroom they hang out in. I read somewhere that parents working from home is particularly difficult for children to process because the parent is home but not available to them. Their primal physiological reaction is to want to interact with their caregiver. It is easier for the parent to be away at a job out of the house.
Even if the family congregates in the family room or kitchen, much of the time is spent with heads bent looking at phones or tablets. Porges says our nervous systems pick up small cues from eye contact, facial muscle movement and even inner ear stimulation. If we are not in close face-to-face proximity, we miss those cues. Our nervous system is not soothed or satisfied. Think about how eyes convey concern and tenderness.
Keep this in mind next time you and your significant other get into a disagreement. If you fight via texting, for example, you miss opportunities to soothe each other with body and facial signals. Finding a way to postpone the discussion until you are near each other, could make all the difference in the outcome.
Texting is an everyday disconnector. I know we’ve all heard the rants against technology, but it does perpetuate a ‘lethal’ feeling of isolation. Dr. Porges said the phone took away the face from in-person interactions. Texting took away the face and voice from interactions. Both the face and the voice can trigger calm reactions within our nervous system. They can trigger fear and discomfort too.
We all know the discomfort of hearing a certain tone in our lover’s or parent’s voice. Perhaps it alerts us to their forthcoming anger or it reminds us of when our parents used to yell at us as kids. If we only hear the tone and do not see the laughter or worry in someone’s face, we only have a portion of the relevant information. Our bodies react subconsciously in a protective — fight, flight or freeze— way. If this happens too often, we stay permanently on high alert, which drains the heck out of us and our adrenals.
Here’s another thing to think about when texting — how quickly do you or your partner respond to texts? Our bodies and minds were built to interact simultaneously. Texting and emailing take away the element of synchrony. If we do not get an immediate response from someone, we may intellectually create a plausible excuse for their delayed reaction but subconsciously our primitive brain sets off a small alarm. It feels like isolation to the body. The cumulative effect of this kind of inconsistent responsiveness is stress, anxiety and deterioration of our body’s resilience.
Hopeful not helpless
This sounds like doom and gloom for our disconnected culture, but we can see it as the knowledge that will lead us to relief and greater fulfillment. We need to intentionally turn toward the people we care about. It’s that simple.
I remember reading a parenting guide that preached listening with our eyes. I’ve also heard of listening with our chests/hearts aimed toward our companions. Both give us a better chance at relieving feelings of disconnection. There is something magical about looking into someone’s eyes and seeing them looking back.
Are there times when your body/nervous system could subconsciously feel isolated? How often do you feel connected with others? How could you increase your feelings of belonging and connection? How could you make others feel secure?