Helping Others ...
The Best Way to Help Ourselves
Recognition and social acceptance are vital to human health - emotional, physical and mental. We're a social species.1,2,3
Our life force, our chi, goes where our attention focuses it. When we get up in the morning, most of us have to think about what we're going to do before we can actually do it. Action (chi in motion) follows attention.
A few special people seem to be much better at attracting attention. We call these people charismatic. They're lively. Being around such a person is usually an enlivening, enjoyable experience. Enthusiasm is contagious. Wise charismatics - good performers - learn to focus their attention on the audience. This keeps the chi in motion instead of hoarding all the limelight and stagnating the chi. By creating a flow, a circuit of chi between themselves and the audience they grow the chi and everyone has more. Chi needs to always be in motion to grow and be strong - attention and the chi it moves is the gift that keeps on giving.
The biggest impediment to chi is stagnation. Getting in ruts. A great way to get out of one's ruts is to start spending time with new groups of people. It's almost as if it's possible to tune into the emotional tone of a group and drink in new ways of thinking and feeling.
If life force follows attention, then spending time with people is essential nourishment. Who we give our attention to and who we seek attention from is one of the clearest ways to see who we are and who we're becoming. As we grow our social worlds we grow ourselves as well - we have to if we're going to inhabit the larger social space. Our lives become more rich. Our ideas and self-images change. We're better connected; there's new possibilities for us; we can get more done. Friendship is not a zero sum game. When we give of ourselves, we ourselves are not diminished. Healthy boundaries assumed.
Social isolation is one of the most drastic forms of punishment. Banning someone from the village or putting them in solitary confinement have always been considered extreme sanctions. Yet when we're depressed or anxious it can be difficult to make connections. We can be painfully aware that we're not bringing our best to the table. We're afraid that people will back away. The body language and tone we adopt when feeling this way can create the very outcome we fear.
Research has shown that teaching schoolkids better emotional management skills improves their ability to get along with their peers, their cognitive performance and their overall physical health.4 Social support reduces some of the endocrinologically damaging consequences of stress.5 Interestingly, attitude has a lot to do with how much benefit one gains from the company of others. Cynical people don't get as much benefit from the time they spend socially.6
Hostility that creates suspicion and mistrust is a stressful way to live; this stress wears away our bodies, particularly our cardiovascular system.7 Lack of support from others can depress us.8 Being open to others and getting social support, on the other hand, tends to lessen the effect of stress on how we feel and what we do.9,10 For example, when older folk go through emotional crisis, social support tends to buffer their self-esteem in such a way as to reduce the stressful effects of the crisis on them.11
People are socially awkward for a variety of reasons. Growing up in very crowded conditions can teach one to withdraw in self-preservation - this habit can then remain for the rest of one's life12 unless one does something about it.
Some classic routes out of isolation:
Find a social or political group whose work you admire and ask if they need any help. There are hiking groups, hospitals that always need help, poetry centers, galleries or small community businesses.
- Support Groups
A little digging around will usually find you all kinds of self-help groups nearby; group therapy can be an option. Emotional support is invaluable when changing directions.
- Artistic Expression
take a class or workshop and develop a talent. Many artists have a reputation for being unusually tolerant of eccentricity, so one's quirks and foibles may have a better chance of being overlooked there than in other parts of town.
Anxiety and depression tend to turn our focus inward onto ourselves and our problems. Turning our attention to others takes energy away from all that. With a little practice or help breaking the ice gets easier even if it takes a few tries to get it right.13 Giving oneself to others means it's not long before you're on the receiving end of others' generosity. Breaking out of ruts usually turns out to be a lot of fun.
1. Henry, J.P., Wang, S. 1998. Effects of early stress on adult affiliative behavior. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 23(8):863-875.
2. Carter, C.S. 1998. Neuroendocrine perspectives on social attachment and love. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 23(8):779-818.
3. Maunder, R.G., Hunter, J.J. 2001. Attachment and psychosomatic medicine: developmental contributions to stress and disease. Psychosomatic Medicine. 63(4):556-567.
4. McCraty, R. et al. 1999. The impact of an emotional self-management skills course on psychosocial functioning and autonomic recovery to stress in middle school children. Integrative Physiology and Behavior Science. 34(4):246-268.
5. Lepore, S.J. et al. 1993. Social support lowers cardiovascular reactivity to an acute stressor. Psychosomatic Medicine. 55(6):518-524.
6. Lepore, S.J. 1995. Cynicism, social support and cardiovascular reactivity. Health Psychology. 14(3):210-216.
7. Weidner, G. et al. 1989. Hostility and cardiovascular reactivity to stress in women and men. Psychosomatic Medicine. 51(1):36-45.
8. Aneshensel, C.S., Stone, J.D. 1982. Stress and depression: a test of the buffering model of social support. Archives of General Psychiatry. 39(12):1392-1396.
9. Fleming, R. et al. 1982. Mediating influences of social support on stress at Three Mile Island. Journal of Human Stress. 8(3):14-22.
10. Bell, R.A. et al. 1982. Evaluating the mediating effects of social support upon life events and depressive symptoms. Journal of Community Psychology. 10(4):325-340.
11. Krause, N. 1987. Life stress, social support, and self-esteem in an elderly population. Psychology and Aging. 2(4):349-356.
12. Evans, G.W., Lepore, S.J. 1993. Household crowding and social support: a quasiexperimental analysis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 65(2):308-316.
13. Flower Essences can be a very helpful Natural StressCare tool in this regard, especially for sensitive or depressed people.