In my last post I introduced you to the concept of the 5 Circles of Health that Wild Life utilises to help people achieve their health goals.
While all 5 Circles are vital for good all-round human health, there is one that is most neglected out of the 5.
At first glance it can be a little confusing to see how the concept of community fits in to health. Indeed, it’s not until we take a step back and look at what health actually means to us that we can see it’s importance.
Much of our modern world view on health centres around the physical aspects; how strong we are, our percentage body fat, speed, agility, recovery time, etc. All good markers and important metrics for a healthy body.
What is often missing is consideration of our mental health. It’s almost as if these two things – mental health and physical health – are entirely unrelated. They are not.
We’ve all felt the physical lethargy that comes with having a bad day, just as we’ve all felt that we could take on Mike Tyson on those days where we are ludicrously chipper.
Community and social interaction is vital for mental health as well as physical health. Human beings are social creatures, we thrive in groups. And while yes, some people are introverts, some form of social interaction is an absolute necessity for a happy human in general. There is a reason why solitary confinement is considered an extreme punishment. In fact the United Nations considers solitary confinement exceeding 15 days to be torture.
We need it. Community that is, not the torture.
And physical health seems to be easier to maintain in the company of others. Being accountable to a training partner or a coach means you are far more likely to turn up and do the work. A run or a workout seems to fly by when we do it with others, and the perceived effort seems lower. Pain is replaced by laughter; suffering becomes a shared survival.
When someone else is sharing our journey or supporting our efforts, the struggle seems reduced. Turning up for a session, making good food choices, coping with mental strain, feels infinitely more possible when we are shoulder to shoulder with someone else.
Enter the Lockdown Era.
The world has changed. Maybe not forever, but it has changed. For much of the world we are still having to be distanced from one another. As I write this, in Ireland and Britain, I cannot train or coach anyone other than elite athletes in person, unless it’s a 1-1 session outdoors. It’s also been -5C here so there are not many takers for that.
Lockdown has put a strain on all the 5 Circles of Health for people. There is the constant reports of crazy dreams and broken sleep; struggle to exercise either due to travel restrictions, lack of guidance, or general malaise; food bills have gone up, it is more difficult to get to the shops, food poverty is rife, and good choices seem harder; lack of work and income, insecurity about the future, the constant bombardment of negative news, and the total polemic arguments online about anything and everything, means our collective stress levels are through the roof.
Community has clearly been hit hardest out of the 5, and it will be a while until we can clearly see full extent of lockdown’s effect. What is clear is that it is having a detrimental effect on peoples mental health. 80% of callers to a suicide helpline in the UK mentioned lockdown last year. The number of suicides in Japan last October alone exceeded 2020’s total Covid deaths. These are frightening statistics.
So what can we do to alleviate this?
We were already living in an increasingly isolated world, pre-pandemic. Despite being hyper-connected via social media etc., people are feeling increasingly socially isolated. Emojis, texts, snapchats, etc just don’t cut it. We’ve all had one of those texts where we agonise over the emotional intent. The “Is she joking or really pissed at me?” kind of text.
Enter 2020 and we had to forgo the hugs, the meet ups, the parties. We have to bump elbows, smile with our eyes, and get a sausage and bacon bap even though I said “WRAP”, (damned face masks)!
I struggle talking on the phone. If I don’t know your number, I will not answer. If I do know it, I still might not. Sorry. Start a video and I visibly shrink back.
But this year, I have felt it is hugely important to reconnect to those I love. If a friend pops into my mind I see it as a sign to make contact. I’ve phoned, I’ve zoomed, I’ve conference called, I’ve had video pub quizzes.
And the effect has been monumental. I love and look forward to my calls, the sense of community that I have regained is phenomenal. I think it has been the single biggest and most positive ‘hack’ of the last year for me. And it costs nothing other than time well spent.
The picture is of me and my mate Stuart loving life. And yes, I have a filter on that I can’t seem to remove, but at least it’s not a kitten.
Is it as good as seeing him in the flesh? No way, but it’s a nice alternative.
And for those intent on Messenger, WhatsApp etc., press the little mic icon and leave a voice message. It’s a game changer I promise you.
The point is, these are high quality social interactions, where we engage on an emotional level through body language, facial expression, and voice tone. It’s a fluid exchange back and forth, often in real time. This does not occur via text, messenger or email. Yes we are 2m apart or separated by cyberspace, but I can see your eyes, hear the emotion in your voice, and see the stance your body is holding. We are sharing the experience together. This is so much more than letters on a screen.
The biggest missing part for many people is the ability to be tactile; to hug, to hold hands, to kiss, to lean a head on someone’s shoulder, to comfort someone in pain.
I’m a hugger. Anyone that knows me well accepts this. Eventually. Often reluctantly. And I miss it. I’m lucky because I have my family around me. But not everyone does.
Touch is hugely important to human beings, promoting a sense of security, increasing co-operative behaviours and sustaining social bonds. Much of this is now thought to be down to Oxytocin, the Love Hormone. The humble hug is a powerful aid in upping your oxytocin levels. But what if you have no-one to hug? Petting animals also elicits the effect. So does hugging a tree, no really. Even getting out into the natural world, such as a woodland walk may also increase oxytocin levels.
If you are shielding and alone you have the option of the Butterfly Hug, the self administered technique that has become standard practice for clinicians working with victims and survivors of man-made and natural catastrophes.
For me, the biggest help for regaining a sense of community, other the reconnecting to my friends and loved ones, has definitely been spending quality time in the natural environment. There are quite a few studies (for eg. here and here) showing a direct correlation between contact with nature and an increased sense of community leading to a healthier mental state and decreased feeling of isolation. Combine this with the sense of being part of something far greater than just ourselves and you have a truly powerful cocktail for success. And if you can’t get outside then studies show that by just looking at images of nature we get many of the beneficial effects. So open up that natural history coffee-table book, or spend an evening (virtually, of course) with David Attenborough and get your fix. And invest in some house plants for some nature, clean air, touch and someone to talk too. I like Peace Lilies.
So the take away:
Reconnect with those that are important to you. Make the interactions ‘high quality’ not just via text, email, or messenger. Get your hugs any way you can- steal a dog, hug a tree, embrace yourself. Spend more time in nature, preferably for real, or virtually if you can’t. Buy a Peace Lily.
And if you need someone to keep you accountable in your health journey please feel free to check out our section on online coaching. We are here to help.