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The Digital Mask

"Walking with a friend in the dark is better than walking alone in the light.”

- Hellen Keller

Over the next few weeks I want to focus on some essential pillars of mental health including a sense of purpose which I wrote about recently, but also the impact of things like sleep and nutrition on our physical and mental health, and today I want to focus on an additional aspect, often overlooked, yet fundamental to our well-being – which is the essence of social connections. With the advent and escalation of digital connectivity, we may have the illusion of being more connected than ever before, but the truth remains that nothing can replace the deep and transformative effect of genuine, face-to-face friendships.

I recently launched an Instagram business account after several people suggested I could help make EMDR therapy more accessible to the millions of people who use Instagram to find things they need to purchase or for essential services including things like psychotherapy. Since I’ve never been on social media, this idea never occurred to me, but I thought it was worth exploring.

So for the past few weeks I’ve been slowly learning about how Instagram works and more specifically how a business account needs to be set up. I've learned more than I expected about not only the app but also how many millions of other people use it. I have to say that overall, I’m really disappointed, and I’ve found my discovery social media to be disconcerting. It impresses me as so shallow and hollow and honestly, I just don’t seem to get it.

I’ve had many psychotherapy clients tell me they believe they’re addicted to apps like Instagram or similar social media and they often find themselves spending hours scrolling mindlessly through hundreds or thousands of Instagram posts. I now find that challenging to understand because the couple of times I’ve seen things posted mainly by other psychotherapists and thought I might want to read more about what they posted, I am disappointed to find there might be a 90 second video or a short couple of screen shots about something, but just no depth or real engagement at all that is worth my time and attention. And those few posts of potential interest are in sharp contrast to the many hundreds of other attempts at being clever or entertaining or what just impress me as pointless efforts to gain attention.

So while I’ve posted some short snippets of things I think might be helpful or encouraging, I have to admit I’ve lost my enthusiasm already and will really have to muster some intentional effort to make time to keep posting. But further diminishing my enthusiasm was something I read that told me when promoting your “brand” on Instagram, what you post is not as important as just posting something every day. I read that and thought to myself: “Wow….really?” Is that what our world has become? Just a mindless and endless stream of blabbering about anything and nothing to let the world know we exist or that we should be paid attention to?

It seems to me that what’s really driving social media is a deeper longing for human connection. As we connect in more superficial ways and in shorter snippets of time, I believe we’ve been left longing for the more engaging and fulfilling aspects of real bonding and genuine connection with humanity. To add credence to this line of thinking, consider that loneliness was recently highlighted by the U.S. Surgeon General as a public health crisis of growing proportion and impact. How can we be growing increasingly lonely at the very same time that social media applications have supposedly connected billions of people in ways they’ve never been connected before?

The Surgeon General’s report on loneliness includes research findings that spending two or more hours on social media per day results in being twice as likely to feel increasingly more lonely while also experiencing diminishing self-esteem. Overall, the report confirms that losing social connection is as dangerous as smoking fifteen cigarettes a day as it impacts both our physical and emotional wellbeing. If that’s hard to imagine or believe, I would recommend reading the report.

It's very clear then that despite the rapid rise in electronic efforts to connect through social media, we are losing what is a vitally important requirement for our health and survival which is real social connection. Human beings are social creatures by nature, and this element of our being profoundly impacts how we operate in group settings. Group intelligence, born out of collective thought, frequently surpasses the wisdom of individual minds, forging solutions of superior quality. This stands as a powerful testament to the wonders of collaboration. But the importance of social interaction isn't confined to the walls of workspaces. It profoundly permeates every aspect of our individual health and holistic well-being.

The gift of a friendship founded on active, non-judgmental listening is a treasure beyond measure. When we feel deeply understood by another person, our bodies respond with a cascade of hormonal changes that bolster both our mental and physical health. The increased presence of hormones such as oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin, in our systems fosters a sense of happiness, bolsters resilience against stress, and elevates our mood. Interestingly, it is this same hormonal concoction that has been instrumental in ensuring the survival and resilience of the human race throughout our history.

On the other side of the spectrum, the experience of loneliness activates our stress response, causing an increase in cortisol levels and sparking a fight-or-flight response. Over time, chronic isolation can undermine our immune system's strength, give rise to a variety of mental and physical health complications, and may even evolve into depression, perpetuating a devastating cycle of self-destruction.

From my professional vantage point as a psychotherapist, I've had the privilege of witnessing the powerful correlation between the development of social connections and the process of healing. When individuals begin to reintegrate into society, when they start to interact and form connections with others, it's often a strong indication of progress being made, of victories over past traumas or episodes of depression.

The beauty of friendship is often found in its spontaneity. It's a connection that just seems to "click" into place, leading to a release of oxytocin and other feel-good hormones in our bodies. I had that experience just last weekend when my wife and I walked to the waterfront near our home, and I struck up a conversation with another man looking out over the water. What started as idle chit chat about the weather and the lack of boats compared to previous Fourth of July holidays, turned into sharing bits of our professional and personal life journeys which was really enjoyable to engage in. I could have easily seen that turning into an eventual friendship had I wanted it to be.

But while sometimes striking up conversation that might lead to friendship can just click as I said and seem easy, at other times seeking out social engagement can be challenging. It often necessitates pushing ourselves beyond our comfort zones, experimenting with new activities, or using modern tools like the "MeetUp" app to find individuals who share our interests. Equally vital is taking the time to assess our existing relationships. Do these interactions leave you feeling uplifted or drained? Can you be your true, authentic self? If the answer is no, it might be worth seeking out healthier, more nourishing relationships.

A genuine friend acts as a mirror that reflects the best in you. They show genuine care and concern, offer a safe space free of judgment, and significantly enhance your mood and immune system. Often, a true friend can provide therapeutic support that is as effective, if not more so, than professional counseling. They can be the pillar that helps you overcome obstacles, achieve your objectives, and navigate the journey of life.

Finding that ideal friend may involve actions such as volunteering your time, attending local community events, joining clubs, or even frequenting the local dog park. The wisdom my mother once shared with me remains relevant today: The simplest way to connect with others is by showing genuine interest in them, their lives, their passions, and their stories.

As we find ourselves progressively drawn into the digital sphere, it's crucial to remember the irreplaceable value of authentic, face-to-face friendships. Our mental and physical health thrive when we invest in nurturing these meaningful relationships. So I encourage you to think about the unique joy and wellbeing that springs from deep, heartfelt conversations you’ve had with new or old friends.

Genuine, in-person interactions have a potent, positive influence on our thoughts and feelings. Conversely, excessive solitude, or relying too heavily on online exchanges, can prove detrimental. Understanding the importance of real-life connections for our mental health is key. So I would like to encourage you and challenge you to focus on where you can foster new relationships or rekindle old ones. Try calling someone on the phone for a real voice conversation or consider a video call or better yet, make time to see them in person and be able to really engage in a heartfelt and meaningful discussion.

If you’re in that category of spending more than two hours on social media daily, then I strongly encourage you to start cutting that down until it’s less than thirty minutes a day. It would be an interesting experiment to see how reducing that time impacts your sense of self-confidence and overall self-esteem, emotional wellness and happiness. It’s another great excuse to discover the joy of talking to strangers, and we can all benefit from more positive interactions in our lives.

Happy Monday!

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