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Friends with Benefits – Why Social Relationships are Crucial to Physical Health

Covid-19 has created social disconnection en-masse. Using cutting-edge neuroscientific research, and utilising the brain's reward pathways, we propose three ways to rebuild the connections between socially disconnected colleagues.

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COVID-19. The term has become synonymous with fear, uncertainty, ambiguity, and unfortunately, social isolation. Social isolation is of course a critical means with which to curb the spread of the disease, but with it, comes a massive cost to the human psyche. 

There seems to be no aspect of our society that social isolation has not touched, from our families and friends to places of religious and spiritual gathering, no sphere has been left unscathed. At work we are seeing an unprecedented increase in working remotely which in many instances leads to social isolation and disconnection from colleagues and clients.   

Human beings are social creatures, so much so, that people who have more quality social connections have been found to live longer1 and are better able to fend off disease ranging from heart disease to cancer2. In short then, when we have quality social ties with others we not only tend to live longer, we tend to be less susceptible to disease too.

How Social Disconnection Activates Neural Alarms

Enter the Corona Virus and social disconnection. The trouble with being social beings is that we are biologically wired for social connection. When social disconnection looms, our brains may actually process it as a threat to our survival3-5. 

When these alarm bells start ringing, they set off a neural chain reaction of responses designed to help us fend off against a perceived threat or impending harm1. Research has implicated certain key brain regions involved in this neural chain reaction, namely6; the amygdala (involved in threat-related responses), dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC – traditionally associated with error detection and monitoring of conflict), anterior insula (fundamental for awareness) and periaqueductal grey (PAG – involved in autonomic functions and behavioural responses to threatening stimuli). 

How Social Disconnection Leads to Physical ill-health

When the neural alarm system mentioned above is constantly activated (as would occur with chronic social isolation) our immune systems go into overdrive7 and in general we start to present with increased levels of inflammation in our bodies, which is associated with most diseases of aging such as neurodegeneration, Type II diabetes and cancer8-9. 

In effect your brain is signalling to your body that there is a threat and that the body should be ready to do something in order to defend against that threat.

Unfortunately for us, our brains have not yet adapted to the more ambiguous and often intangible nature of threats in our modern lives, and is still working under the same assumptions that saved early man from pouncing lions or an onslaught from a neighbouring tribe. In essence your brain perceives social isolation as a vulnerability, which could lead to physical harm, and with such harm, the potential for bacterial infection (think animal bites), which would necessitate increased immune response6.  

Since modern threats, such as social isolation, do not often have a tangible, or quick solutions (like running away from the lion), we stay in the ‘fight-or-flight’ mode, which was designed to prepare the body for ‘maximum attack’ over short periods of time.       

Finding the Off Switch 

When it comes to work, as noted earlier, there is an unprecedented increase in working remotely or from home, and with it, the challenge of working outside the office, being physically separated from your colleagues, and of course, the usual stress of work. 

So how then can we reverse the effects of actual (or perceived) social disconnection? The answer lies within our brains capacity to identify and interpret reward within the environment around us. 

In this regard there are two neural reward-related systems that can help combat against the negative effects of social disconnection, these are; neural regions that process safety and reduce responses to perceived threats10 and neural regions associated with caregiving behaviours11 (which in turn reduce responses to threats). 

Social Support Increases Feelings of Safety

When we are stressed out, the presence of social support (such as a trusted mentor, colleague, family member, etc.) can lead to a reduction of perceived fear and an increase in the perception of safety6. From a neurological perspective the presence of social support leads to activation of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC – responsible for the regulation and inhibiting of our responses to emotions) and posterior cingulate cortex (PCC – involved in internally directed thought)10. 

Activation of the VMPFC and PCC leads to reduced threat-related neural activity12 as well as the inhibiting of the sympathetic nervous system (think flight-or-fight mode) and reduced cortisol response13 (cortisol is the stress hormone). In short, activating these systems puts your body back into a relaxed state and your mind back into a state of safety and security. 

How then do we get social support if we are physically removed from our colleagues/clients/managers (fill the blank)? Research indicates that the presence of social support is what is important6 with something as simple as looking at a picture of a loved one during a stressful period (such as when feeling socially isolated) activating the VMPFC, whilst receiving supportive messages during social isolation leading to activation of both the VMPFC and the PCC14. In essence then, being reminded of your social connections has a similar effect to actually being with them6. 

The take-home? There are three key behaviours that every employee or manager can engage in to promote the presence of social support in the workplace (wherever that may now be), these are: 

#1 – Share and Display Photo Memories

Almost every workgroup has a WhatsApp group. This is the perfect platform from which to share photos of the last teambuilding, office shenanigans or award ceremonies of you and your colleagues. By sharing images with those who are physically disconnected from one another, we are able to remind people of their social bonds, and in so doing, provide relief and support. Just one caveat here – when sharing pictures of your workgroup, make sure to share images in which either individually, or collectively, every member of the group is represented, otherwise you simply promote social isolation for those poor, unrepresented souls.

Secondly, wherever you find your workspace to be now (coffee shop, home office, car, you name it) make sure to have some photos of the people you love and cherish with you, and on display, just having these pictures around you will stimulate the VMPFC and PCC, especially during periods of work stress and undulation and in so doing, relieve you of some distress. 

#2 – Pick up the Phone and Dial

Socially supportive messages, whether they come in the form of a phone-call or message can make a world of difference to someone feeling socially isolated (a message of support only, not; hey, how are you holding up there? Oh, have you seen the latest projections?)

Take the time to reach out to a colleague or superior, and send them a message of support and concern. Being vulnerable with one another in this way not only builds greater social bonds, it again leads to increased activity in those all-important VMPFC and PCC regions. This would be of particular relevance to managers of remote teams, taking the time to send a message of personal support can be an excellent buffer for social isolation and burnout of team-members. 

#3 – Normalise and Support Work Boundaries and Downtime

One of the difficulties with remote working is that it removes the ‘comparison other’ that people often use to gauge the intensity with which they must engage with their work tasks.  Furthermore, the usual workday structure is lost with the advent of remote working.

In effect, people may start to worry that their continued membership to their workplace social networks hinges on their ability to work unsustainable hours and to immediately respond to requests made by colleagues and superiors. Since people will structure and manage their workdays differently (in the absence of formal workhours) emails and messages are often sent at a variety of different times, causing people to feel insecure of the adequacy of their work efforts (for example: wow, they are sending emails at this time of night, I really should be working too…). 

Leaders need to provide structure and direction to employees in terms of when responses to requests (in whatever form they come) is acceptable – perhaps think along the lines of a cut-off time to email responses per day and that employees should not feel compelled to respond to emails beyond that time. 

Closing Thoughts

Whilst the advent of the Corona-Virus has made uncertainty and social isolation commonplace in our lives, we need not become victims of circumstance. 

Indeed, whilst our brains might still be wired for survival in the Savanna, we can mitigate the negative effects of social isolation and stress by taking the time to cherish picture memories of our family, friends and loved ones, whilst sharing work related picture memories with our colleagues and superiors. Furthermore, by taking time out of our days to simply ask how another human being is doing, not only do we breach the rift of social isolation, we also benefit from reduced stress responses and increased feelings of social connection and bliss.  

So, what are you waiting for? Pick up the phone and reach out! 

References

1.      Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T.B., & Layton, J.B. (2010). Social relationships and mortality risk: A meta-analytic review. PLoS Medicine, 7(7)

2.      Miller, G., Chen, E., & Cole, S.W. (2009). Health psychology: Developing biologically plausible models linking the social world and physical health. Annual Review of Psychology, 60, 501-524

3.      Cacioppo, J.T., & Hawkley, L.C. (2009). Perceived social isolation and cognition. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 13(10), 447-454

4.      Eisenberger, N.I., Lieberman, M.D. & Williams, K.D. (2003). Does rejection hurt: An fMRI study of social exclusion. Science, 302(5643)290-292

5.      Eisenberger, N.I. (2012). The pain of social disconnection: examining the shared neural underpinnings of physical and social pain. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 12(6), 421-434

6.      Eisenberger, N.I., Cole, S.W. (2012). Social neuroscience and health: Neurophysiological mechanisms linking social ties with physical health. Nature Neuroscience, 15(5), 669-67

7.      Cole, S.W., Hawkley, L.C., Arevalo, J.M., Sung, C.Y., Rose, R.M., & Cacioppo, J.T. (2007). Social Regulation of gene expression in human leukocytes. Genome Biology, 8(9), R189

8.      Bosch, J.A., de Geus, E.J.C., Carroll, D., Goedhart, A.D., Anane, L.A., van Zanten, J.J.V., Helmerhorst, E.J., & Edwards, K.M. (2009). A general enhancement of autonomic and cortisol responses during social evaluative threat. Psychosomatic Medicine, 71(8), 877-885

9.      Dickerson, SS., & Kemeny, M.E. (2004). Acute stressors and cortisol response: A theoretical integration and synthesis of laboratory research. Psychological Bulletin, 130(3), 355-391

10.     Delgado, M.R., Olsson, A., & Phelps, E.A. (2006). Extending animal models of fear conditioning to humans. Biological Psychology, 73(1)39-48

11.     Inagaki, T.K., Eisenberger, N.I. (2012). Neural correlates of giving support to a loved one. Psychosomatic Medicine, 74(1), 3-7

12.     Wager, T.D., van Ast, V.A., Hughes, B.L., Davidson, M.L., Lindquist, M.A., & Ochsner, K.N. (2009). Brain mediators of cardiovascular responses to social threat, part II: Prefrontal-subcortical pathways and relationship with anxiety. Neuroimage, 47(3), 836-51

13.     Eisenberger, N.I., Taylor, S.E., Gable, S.L., Hilmert, C.J., & Lieberman, M.D. (2007). Neural pathways link social support to attenuated neuroendocrine stress responses. Neuroimage, 35(4)1601-1612

14.     Onoda, K., Okamoto, Y., & Nakashima, K. (2009). Decreased ventral anterior cingulate cortex activity is associated with reduced social pain during emotional support. Social Neuroscience, 4(5)443-454

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