The Healing Power of Connection and the Dangers of Loneliness
Part II: Toxicity, Ambivalence, Loneliness- The Deadly Trio for the Heart
It’s time to put down the fork attached to the gluten-free, organic, nutrient-dense, guilt-free bite, hang up the obsessive biohacks (for a minute), and chew on how your relationships are affecting your health, just as much, or more.
Listen to Part I in 7 minutes below.
Listen to Part II in 9 minutes below.
In Part I, we explored how positive social connections can powerfully benefit your heart and whole body. You now have more proof that the heart-brain connection is not just “woo-woo.”
Now, let’s move forward into a harder discussion about relationship toxicity, because it may take even more work than changing your grains to gluten-free. Yet, it could be the missing piece to peaceful hearts and whole-body health.
How Toxic and Strained Relations Can Cause Harm
In an article in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, key research themes between relationships and health and its implications for policy were reviewed. The authors summarized the detriments of isolation and five main findings on social relationships from various studies.
Let’s zero in on isolation. The authors stated:
Captors use social isolation to torture prisoners of war—to drastic effect. Social isolation of otherwise healthy, well-functioning individuals eventually results in psychological and physical disintegration, and even death.
Death by isolation?
A recent study actually found that loneliness was more of a health risk than “obesity” or smoking.
Translation: You could be doing everything physically “right” for your heart, but your relationships could be making everything wrong. Here’s the connections:
- Addiction and Toxic Relationships: There’s been studies that show associations formed with risk-taking peers have higher rates of addictive and abusive tendencies.
- Compromised Health and Harmful Relationships: Reviews of studies show that negative relationships compromised immunity and negative stress outcomes on the physiology of the heart and other systems.
Some Silver Lining!!
The Key Factor for the Risks Associated with
Have you ever heard the expression, “You can feel alone surrounded in a crowded room?” That saying has some science to it.
Just as toxicity is, well, toxic, so could ambivalence be.
The Science of Toxicity Perception and Relationships
In a 2014 review, Social Relationships and Health: The Toxic Effects of Perceived Social Isolation, published in Social and Personality Psychology Compass, the authors discussed some of these unwanted effects. I bolded my point about perception below:
We found that feelings of loneliness were associated with increased mortality risk over a 6-year period. Importantly, the association between loneliness and mortality was not explained by objective features of social relationships (e.g., marital status) or by health behaviors. In cross-lagged panel models that tested the reciprocal prospective effects of loneliness and morbidity, loneliness both affected and was affected by depressive symptoms and functional limitations over time, and it had marginal effects on later self-rated health. Higher rates of morbidity and mortality in lonely than nonlonely older adults have also been reported by other investigators (e.g., Caspi, Harrington, Moffitt, Milne, & Poulton, 2006; Eaker, Pinsky, & Castelli, 1992; Holt-Lunstad, Smith, & Layton, 2010; Olsen, Olsen, Gunner-Svensson, & Waldstrom, 1991; Patterson & Veenstra, 2010; Perissinotto, Stijacic, & Covinsky, 2012; Seeman, 2000; Thurston & Kubzansky, 2009).
Loneliness has also been found to be a risk factor for increased vascular resistance and blood pressure (Cacioppo, Hawkley, Crawford, et al., 2002; Hawkley, Burleson, Berntson, & Cacioppo, 2003; Hawkley, Masi, Berry, & Cacioppo, 2006; Hawkley, Thisted, Masi, & Cacioppo, 2010), metabolic syndrome (Whisman, 2010), fragmented sleep (Cacioppo, Hawkley, Berntson, et al., 2002; Hawkley, Preacher, & Cacioppo, 2010; Jacobs, Cohen, Hammerman-Rozenberg, & Stessman, 2006; Kurina et al., 2011), increased hypothalamic pituitary adrenocortical activity (Adam, Hawkley, Kudielka, & Cacioppo, 2006; Cacioppo, Ernst, et al., 2000; Doane & Adam, 2010; Glaser, Kiecolt-Glaser, Speicher, & Holliday, 1985; Steptoe, Owen, Kunz-Ebrecht, & Brydon, 2004), altered gene expression indicative of decreased inflammatory control and increased glucocorticoid insensitivity (Cole, Hawkley, Arevalo, & Cacioppo, 2011; Cole et al., 2007), diminished immunity (Dixon et al., 2006; Glaser, Evandrou, & Tomassini, 2005; Kiecolt-Glaser et al., 1984; Pressman et al., 2005; Straits-Troester, Patterson, Semple, & Temoshok, 1994), and diminished impulse control (cf. Cacioppo & Hawkley, 2009). Included in the documentation of these associations are longitudinal as well as cross-sectional studies and evidence that the association with loneliness holds even when controlling for other risk factors such as marital status, frequency of contact with friends and family, depression, and social support.
Summary so far…
Isolation can be bad.
The authors in the referenced study cited a long list of risk factors and studies linked to loneliness. These included increased blood pressure and pressure on blood vessels, metabolic syndrome, altered gene expression related to stress and inflammatory response, lowered immunity, and more. They also reported that depression was predicted by loneliness, but not the other way around (i.e., depression was not predictive of loneliness).
But, there’s a very important point that I bolded in the above text.
It’s the perception of isolation that is bad.
This means that the happy loner may be at less risk of health harm than the lonely, married person in an ambivalent relationship.
Even more intriguing is that there is an epigenetic impact of loneliness. In other words, loneliness literally changes your genetic expression toward negative effects! Below are summaries of two studies:
The first study utilized an in vivo genomics-based strategy to identify genes that are differentially expressed in the immune system of people who experience chronically high levels of subjective isolation (loneliness). They demonstrated impaired transcription (gene expression) of glucocorticoid response genes (stress hormones) and increased activity of pro-inflammatory pathways. This provided an association of elevated risk of inflammatory disease in those individuals who experience chronically high levels of subjective social isolation.
The second study identified changes in cellular immune responses (dendritic and monocyte cells) in subjectively lonely individuals, which can lead to diminished health outcomes.
The key point of perception was brought out again in study two with this important sentence, “Those dynamics reflected per-cell changes in the expression of inducible genes and related more strongly to the subjective experience of loneliness than to objective social network size…”
Kind of terrifying if you’re a “peaceful cohabitator.”
I get ya’.
Let’s address how to BreakFree™ of the fear below.
Tools for Supporting Connection and Perception
If you still think emotional detox and taking time to create a heart-brain connection isn’t important for heart health after reading my blog, then, you probably haven’t gotten to this point or my point.
For those who have, here’s the summary points and suggestions and resources to cultivate healthy relationships that can help in healing your heart.
1. Loneliness is a matter of perspective. You can use some of the tools found here to experience an emotional detox and here to calm the heart-brain with essential oils and HeartMath Institute techniques.
If your relationships are ambivalent due to negative expectations and unresolved trauma, these are places to start. Therapy and other solutions may apply.
2. You can learn to be more connected in important relationships. You want to focus on building quality of relationships to promote health. Aiming for quantity in relationships isn’t necessarily protective against isolation effects. Below are some suggestions:
- View this 5 minute video in which Brene Brown discusses the importance of being vulnerable to the right people and six people who do not deserve to hear your shame story.
- Learn your own and your partner’s and friend’s love language.
Discuss it, communicate about what you need, have courage to partake in difficult conversations, resolve to make decisions, and heal bridges.
Bottom line: You want trust those who deserve to be trusted and who build your belief that who you are is valuable. This will result in powerful cardiovascular disease prevention.
Please realize that the above points could take years of work and can’t fully be summarized in a blog with a blanket recommendation to end “toxic,” “ambivalent,” or any relationships. That is based on your perception and decision.
It may require professional help to decode what is best for you.
3. Later this week, we will learn how essential oils can tame hormone havoc and stress attacks that can damage connections to the heart and create unhappy Valentine’s. For now, keep sniffing those emotional blends!
Click here for January 2018 Top Holistic and Integrative Health Reads.
Disclaimer: This information is applicable ONLY for therapeutic quality essential oils. This information DOES NOT apply to essential oils that have not been tested for purity and standardized constituents. There is no quality control in the United States, and oils labeled as “100% pure” need only to contain 5% of the actual oil. The rest of the bottle can be filled with fillers and sometimes toxic ingredients that can irritate the skin. The studies are not based solely on a specific brand of an essential oil, unless stated. Please read the full study for more information.
This material is for information purposes only and is not intended to diagnose, treat, or prescribe for any illness. You should check with your doctor regarding implementing any new strategies into your wellness regime. These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. (Affiliation link.)