The Healing Power of Connection
At one level we have always understood that there is a close link between physical and social pain. We talk about having hurt feelings and broken hearts, and many of us will have experienced physical pain when learning of the loss of somebody dear to us. Recent research has demonstrated that this link is even stronger than we might have imagined, and that many of the neural pathways that are involved in physical pain are also involved in social pain.
These links have been researched in a number of different ways. It has been found that hurt feelings can be eased by taking a paracetamol, and worsened by taking a drug that causes inflammation. Brain scans have demonstrated that some of the areas of the brain that become active in response to painful stimuli also become active in response to cues of social rejection. Chronic loneliness has been linked with long term physiological effects including increased inflammation. Additionally, it has been shown to take a higher stimulation before pain is reported as 'very unpleasant' for people in the company of, or even looking at a picture of their partners compared to the same people in the company of strangers. Taken together, the evidence stacks up to show that the experience of pain is massively affected by our sense of connection or disconnection with others (see here for a review)
This all makes sense when we take an evolutionary perspective. Pain is often a signal of potential danger, and for humans social isolation and disconnection would usually be fatal. We need to live in groups, and are particularly dependent on others during the early years of our lives when we are not yet mature enough to fully look after ourselves.
Things often get tricky when long term pain becomes an issue. While pain may be triggered for a number of different reasons, our response to pain can unwittingly feed into the very cycle that maintains or increases it's intensity. Disconnection is one of these responses.
The psychologist Paul Gilbert has described how our emotions are organised into 3 basic systems, to help us deal with threats, motivation and soothing downtime. When balanced these emotional systems work to help us to deal with the challenges of everyday life while also carrying out long term healing and soothing functions necessary for good health. This balance can be disrupted when we find ourselves constantly hating and fighting against an experience like pain. Yet fighting against something that we find unpleasant is exactly what we are automatically predisposed to do.
So we experience pain and we don't like it. Our threat and motivation based systems are activated as we try to find a solution. Inflammatory responses are triggered which motivate us to do something about our pain. We cannot access the natural healing properties of the soothing system which is deactivated. The unpleasantness of the experience draws our focus inwards, so we feel more aware of ourself and our own needs and more disconnected from other people. This sense of disconnection may be heightened by the practical constraints put on us by the pain which stops us from helping out and socialising in the way that we might have done before. Even if we are surrounded by supportive friends, this process can make us feel very alone. As the threat and motivation systems are further triggered in a desperate attempt to find a solution to our pain, self-critical thinking is often generated which is received as a further threat and triggers further inflammation. At this point, even if the original trigger to pain is no longer present a self-maintaining cycle of aversion and inflammation can maintain and increase the intensity of pain.
Within this cycle, a sense of disconnection from others plays an important role. The emotional responses that are triggered by long term pain can tend to make us feel that we need to withdraw from others, because we are a burden or because they are uncaring. Many people who have long term pain, responding to these automatic responses, close themselves off or push other people away even when support is available. And yet a sense of connection with others, the ability to just be with people who care and want to be of help could help to activate the soothing emotional system and break the cycle of motivation, threat and increased inflammation.
This sense of connection will not happen automatically - long term pain predisposes us to respond in a different way. So we need to deliberately nurture and cultivate it. We need to work on reminding ourselves that other people care, even if they get frustrated and don't know how to help. We need to broaden our focus to see that there are other people near and far who are also suffering, and that this shared suffering gives us a shared understanding of others. We need to learn to show care for ourself when we could more automatically be pulled into self-criticism. We need to keep trying to appreciate the connections we can manage with others, however small, and to be alert to the possibility that, at any moment, automatic tendencies may be triggered in ourselves that cause us to close ourselves off from others so that they can't reach us. We need to learn to relate to our own experience as a friend, not a harsh critic.
To help with all of this we can practice kindness and compassion exercises. Often it can feel difficult to do this at first, and can take some time before we start to feel any benefit. From the very beginning we will be putting down roots which will eventually help us to relate to our difficult experience in a softer, more connected way. We will also be starting to disrupt the pattern of long term pain and giving ourselves a chance of a different future.