Wellness

How Do We Build Connection While Social Distancing?

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How Do We Build Connection While Social Distancing?

No matter how independent you believe you are, we need others: for connection, love, and to find meaning in our lives. When things get tough, we can turn to those around us for support. But when times are really tough, it often feels like the easiest path is to isolate and pull away from those relationships—even though that’s when we need them most.

Psychiatrist James Gordon, MD, the founder and director of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine, has spent decades investigating ways we can overcome stress and trauma in order to reconnect. And he’s shared with us two techniques for opening up—to vulnerability, to one another, and to the healing we can achieve when we go at it together.

For more, check out Gordon’s first episode of The goop Podcast, “When Our Bodies Talk to Us,” and his book on healing from trauma, The Transformation. Gordon also appears on a new episode of The goop Podcast, “What Happens during Prolonged Stress.”

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A Q&A with James Gordon, MD

Q
How does stress affect our ability to connect with other people?
A

We human beings are often in a mode where although our life is not physically at risk, our brain responds as if it were. When that happens, we enter the sympathetic nervous system’s fight-or-flight response. Our heart rate and blood pressure go up, and the amygdala, the center of fear and anger in the brain, is activated. Areas of the frontal cortex—which is responsible for judgment, self-awareness, and compassion—are downregulated. The function of our vagus nerve, which governs the rest-and-digest function of our parasympathetic nervous system, is overridden.

The vagus nerve, in addition to calming us, improving functioning in the frontal cortex, and decreasing overactivity in the amygdala, also connects with cranial nerves responsible for speech and facial expression. Its activity makes it easier for us to read other people’s facial expressions, tune in to their speech, and bond with them.

Disrupting vagus function means disrupting social processes. That means when we’re anxious, tense, and hypervigilant, there’s a cascade of issues: We become wary of other people, are easily triggered, and have trouble relating to people effectively.


Q
Can human connection help ease our stress? Can easing stress help us relate to one another?
A

Connecting with other people when we’re anxious and agitated can often help reduce our level of stress. It activates our deepest sense of maternal-infant bonding.

The link between connection and stress is a bit of a chicken-egg situation. If we’re under so much stress, it’s very hard to let other people come close to us. But it can be a virtuous cycle instead of a vicious one: We can reduce our stress, which allows us to let people come a little closer, which will reduce our stress further, which makes it easier to connect more closely with other people.


Q
How can we tend to our own emotional state so that we can form closer connections with others?
A

We have to learn to calm ourselves, relax, and create moments of awareness. That is the fruit and essence of meditation. In a meditative and mindful state, it’s much easier to connect to other people: to reach out to them, to tune in to them, to bond with them.

I want to take meditation out of any kind of highfalutin spiritual aspiration. This is a very basic technique of relaxing and bringing the body and mind into balance. Meditation reinforces the sense that life can be a little more peaceful, a little more relaxed, a little more interesting—because when we meditate, we become more interested in who we are, what’s going on in our body, and what our thoughts and feelings might mean. And we become aware of the fact that we have the capacity to actively change how we’re feeling.

The place to begin is a kind of meditation I call soft-belly breathing. Here’s how it works: Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth, with your belly soft and relaxed. Focus on the word “soft” as you breathe in and “belly” as you breathe out. If thoughts come, you let them come, and you let them go. Gently bring your attention back to “soft belly.”

That’s the foundation for other self-care techniques. It gives us a direct experience of helping ourselves, and it makes it easier to connect with other people.


Q
What about for people who are in vicious cycles of self-isolation or loneliness, whether that’s caused by social anxiety or trauma?
A

When we’ve experienced overwhelming trauma, we shut down our bodies, and we shut down all our emotions with it. The more overwhelming the trauma is, the more physically and emotional withdrawn we become. It’s a protective mechanism: If somebody is beating you up or you’re being raped, your brain puts out endorphins to protect you, and you may dissociate. That’s how people get through these experiences, because the physical and psychological pain is too much. And often, our bodies and emotions retain that tenseness. We become frozen.

One of the ways we help people come back into their body and begin to melt those trauma-frozen bodies is through active, expressive meditation, which in practice looks like shaking and dancing. It’s a simple technique and one that I teach early at workshops or training programs. Shaking the body allows it loosen up. With that activity, we allow our emotions to come back up, too.

Expressive Meditation: Shaking and Dancing

  1. 1. Stand up, with your feet shoulder-width apart and your knees bent. Start shaking from your feet up through your knees, hips, and shoulders. As you do this, the body begins to loosen up. Emotions may come up.
  2. 2. Then spend a couple of minutes just relaxing in a standing position, being aware of the body and breath.
  3. 3. Put on music that allows you to express yourself and dance however your body wants to move.

The shutting-down that closes us off from our bodies and emotions also causes us to become more withdrawn from other people. When we use this technique of expressive meditation, we begin to recover a sense of expression and emotional freedom. That, in turn, makes it easier to connect with other people.


Q
How can you use these techniques to work through stress with a partner?
A

This is what I recommend to couples at the Center for Mind-Body Medicine: Don’t try to sit and have intimate conversations when you’re both in fight-or-flight or frozen, shut-down moods. That’s a recipe for disaster. You’ve got to deal with the tension first. And the same techniques are useful: Do one of these expressive meditations. Or maybe go for a walk together. Move to get rid of some of the tension. And then sit with each other.


Q
Do you have any advice for empaths, especially when they’re feeling overwhelmed by others who are relying on them for emotional support?
A

The issue for empaths is really how to metabolize what we’re experiencing—to let it move through us, as opposed to holding onto it. For me, what is helpful is adopting a more meditative attitude toward my feelings of empathy. I allow the feelings to come, and I allow them to go.

The other piece is adopting the same kind of meditative mind toward being an empath. Being an empath is a tool and an experience. It’s useful because you can tune in to other people and because you may be able to help them understand themselves. But if you’re holding onto your empathy as the definition of who you are, you tend to hold that inside yourself. Do the shaking. Do the dancing. Just allow it to go.


Q
How do we foster feelings of connection when it’s also our duty to socially distance and self-isolate?
A

This is a time when we need more connection. We have to disconnect in certain ways. Most of us are unable to go into work. Our kids can’t go to school. We can’t touch or hug one another as freely as we did before. We’re told, and rightly so, that we ought to keep a little bit of physical distance. We have to be at home and separated as much as possible.

At the same time, we have to enhance feelings of connection in order to maximize the functioning of our immune system. So how do we do that? First of all, eye contact: looking at people, appreciating, smiling. Then, something I learned in the Islamic world, where men and women can’t shake hands, is to put your hand over your heart. It’s a beautiful way to signal that from my heart to yours, we are connected.

Beyond that, reaching out. It doesn’t have to be a plan. A spontaneous “How you doing? What’s happening?” can do so much. I want to be more in touch with people, at a distance, than I usually am, and for those people I can see physically, I feel it’s even more important.


Q
Why is social disconnection a problem that extends beyond the scope of the pandemic?
A

We need to take time to remember that connection is not just an issue of COVID-19. There is a lesson here we can take with us when this is all over. Humans evolved in bands of thirty to fifty individuals who were together in community all the time. We existed this way over hundreds of thousands of years. But the way we’ve been living now is a historical and evolutionary aberration and a violation of our biological and biopsychosocial programming. And it ain’t good for us. We need to emphasize our social bonds more. The pandemic is putting us in a time and place where people are waking up to that.


James S. Gordon, MD, a Harvard-educated psychiatrist, is internationally recognized for using self-awareness, self-care, and group support to heal population-wide psychological trauma. He is the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Washington, D.C., and a clinical professor at Georgetown Medical School, and he was the chairman (under presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush) of the White House Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medicine Policy. He is the author of The Transformation: Discovering Wholeness and Healing After Trauma.


This article is for informational purposes only, even if and regardless of whether it features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. The views expressed in this article are the views of the expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop.

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