Heart to heart: How connection protects & grows resilience

By Anne Collier

Back in 2008, I wrote about evidence that social networks – our social circles, as experienced online or offline – are a source of health and safety. They’re also protective in the way that fellow family and community members have each other’s backs.

And the evidence is growing that meaningful social connections increase safety and well-being. Here’s more evidence of how connecting with others in a meaningful way can increase health and reduce any harm from stress: research presented in a TED Talk by Stanford University health psychologist Kelly McGonigal. I’m sure that a big part of the explanation for the enormous response to her talk since it was posted last fall (4.3 million+ views so far) is how effectively she challenges long-held beliefs about the harmful effects of stress (and shows how removing fear of them zeroes out the harmful effects) and, moreover, shows how our bodies’ heart-pumping response to stress is actually their way of helping us rise to the challenge causing the stress (watch the talk for how that works).

How connection heals

But just as interesting is the social part of all this: “Your stress response,” McGonigal says, “has a built-in mechanism for stress resilience, and that mechanism is human connection.” Stress triggers the release in our brains of the “stress hormone,” oxytocin, she says. “Your pituitary gland pumps it out as part of your stress response. And when it’s released, it’s motivating you to seek support. Your biological stress response is nudging you to tell someone how you feel instead of bottling it up. Your stress response wants to make sure you notice when someone in your life is struggling so that you can support each other. When life is difficult, your stress response wants you to be surrounded by people who care about you.

“Oxytocin doesn’t only act on your brain,” McGonigal continues. “It also acts on your body.” She gives a bunch of examples, from protecting the cardiovascular system from stress’s effects to keeping blood vessels relaxed (not constricted) to helping heart cells regenerate. “It actually strengthens your heart.”

Social stress reduction

And here’s the clincher: “All of these physical benefits are enhanced by social contact and social support. So,” she says, “when you reach out to others under stress either to seek support or to help someone else, you release more of this hormone, your stress response becomes healthier, and you actually recover faster from stress.”

Now, you might say that that’s only “real world” social contact, but not necessarily. Some people, e.g., those who are very shy or otherwise socially challenged have found they can make connections more easily online, with a veil of anonymity – something teachers have told me, based on bringing digital environments into the classroom (see this and the first Related link below).

How appropriate for Valentine’s

McGonigal concludes by saying, “Stress gives us access to our hearts – the compassionate heart that finds joy and meaning in connecting with others.” As for that “pounding physical heart working so hard to give you strength and energy,” she says that when we choose to let that stress response turn us outward to make connections, “you’re actually making a pretty profound statement. You’re saying that you can trust yourself to handle life’s challenges, and you’re remembering that you don’t have to face them alone.”

Since the earliest days of social media, the online safety discourse around the world has been overwhelmed with messaging about the potential negative impacts of these media that are so much a part of our children’s social development and experiences. So isn’t it a relief to see that social media also increases our access to meaningful connection and mutual support, whether a person’s socially challenged or socially successful?

Related links