I was walking to the grocery store this morning (part of my New Year's resolution to go outside by noon each day - something that doesn't come naturally on the days I am working from home in my pyjamas...) and listening to Freakonomics, one of my favourite podcasts. This one was all about social trust, and the effect it has on society as a whole.
One aspect I found particularly fascinating was the fact that increased social trust supports individual health. This quote really struck me:
"Feeling that other people can be trusted, or having people you can rely on in your life is worth a great deal. It is roughly the same positive effect as giving up smoking. And, you know, smoking is really really bad for you. Social isolation is essentially incredibly bad for your health". - Dr. David Halpern - head of UK's Behavioural Insight Team
Translation: Lacking a sense of community is as bad as smoking!!!
When reflecting on what will best support my own health and that of my patients in the year ahead, I find this strikes a particular chord. Since moving back to London in 2013, I have certainly struggled to form a community of friends that rivals that I had established in Toronto, my home for 13 years prior. It is something I hear again and again from others in similar positions - that London is a hard place to make friends. And I would also say that, as adults, no matter where you live, this can be particularly challenging. Our lives are so packed with work and taking care of things at home, that the energy to "go out" and "be social" diminishes. But is this seemingly normal change as we move into adulthood and home ownership and parenthood actually having a negative effect on our health?...
It seems so.
When I think of the times that I struggled most with my own mental health, it inevitably coincided with feelings of isolation from friends and family. This - social isolation - we have known as one of the definitive causes of depression and decline in mental wellness for years. So what about other forms of health as well?
My job is all about making connections for people, and the one that I can't stop talking about is the undisputed connection between stress and health. Period. That can mean mental health, but also high blood pressure, weight gain, hormone imbalance - you name it, there is likely a stress connection. Most disease is multi-faceted, meaning there are multiple different root causes, but stress continues to be the one that keeps showing up, across the board.
This all circles back to the importance of community, or social trust. Having others nearby that you know will "have your back" is of utmost importance. Having others nearby to make you laugh, share in fun times, and let off some steam with is essential. Having others nearby so that you feel you are part of something - that indescribable something that exists when you can say hi to your neighbour, chat with someone at the grocery store, and feel shared goals with others beyond your own immediate family - that is what supports us all.
2017, in the wider world, truly felt like The Year of Divisiveness. Horrific world events of mass shootings, civil wars, and constant evidence of further racial and gender inequality seemed to be the norm. Patients of mine would reflect on how the world events were causing them to feel more overwhelmed and stressed in their own lives. That is why I have decided to make 2018 The Year of Community - in my own life, and hopefully yours as well.
So I'd like to challenge you to reflect on your own sense of community - Does it feel robust and supportive? Or does it need some building up in the coming months? Because the importance of community and connectedness is just as important as any of those other health-related goals that are on your 2018 Resolution list. So go to yoga - with a friend! Challenge your co-worker to up their steps over Fitbit! Bring your old soccer cleats out from the basement and join that team you've been thinking about! Organize a monthly potluck with a few families! 2017 flew by, and intentions can too. Make it a habit to reach out to others, because they are probably in the same boat as you - wanting to see you more, but never finding the time. And once we all find time, then we are all happier, and healthier.
Happy New Year to you all.
~Dr. Rush, ND