About this post: In this blog series, we are deconstructing self-care concepts and showing the significance of the connections and actions that often come with self-care, rather than the product or concept itself. So why are these connections so important? Our brains are wired for social interactions, connecting us as interdependent beings. Simply by viewing someone else’s emotion, we can immediately feel what someone is feeling. It is these connections that play an important role in supporting and promoting mental health.
I walked down the crowded sidewalks of Thane, a growing city just outside the outskirts of Mumbai, and immediately felt assaulted by the immensity of the crowds.
There were people everywhere, pushing past me, bumping into me, scolding me for not knowing the rules for how to maneuver the chaos around me. I was a visitor, and so I asked my cousins, “Why does everyone look at you here? No one looks at me in Los Angeles.” I was used to eyes averted, bodies turned away. More than by the physical shoves, I felt attacked by the fact that they looked at me, looked straight into my eyes as we passed. It felt as if I couldn’t escape their gazes, as if I was being seen.
Later in my life, I moved to La Jolla, a small beachside town in California, and again, people looked at me, but this time they said hello, they smiled. I remembered my experience in India, and it made me think that maybe the ability to pause and greet someone could be a luxury that not all can afford, neither emotionally nor socio-politically. Still, there was something here in this moment of being seen, as if acknowledging the personhood of another being, even in brief moments, was a defining act of being human.
As a college student at USC, an advisor, Jeff Murakami, who at the time was the Director of the Asian Pacific American Student Services, asked us one day to think about all the people we had seen before we stepped into his office that day. We answered things like “my roommate” or “my professor”, which then led him to ask us if we could recall who else we saw. We must have walked by any one of many USC employees engaged in service work or manual labor. Had we seen them?
Thinking back, there is something important about my childhood confusion at why people would want to look at me, acknowledge me when they don’t even know me. I think it speaks to the individualism of our society, where we live and work in silos, worlds divided and rarely intersecting. Even for ourselves, most of our lives are spent within a bubble of “I, my, me and mine.” Anything outside the bubble seems foreign, confusing, threatening. Sometimes, we can wander toward the edges of the bubble when we care for others, but mostly, those “others” are like us and so it’s not really like leaving our own bubble.
Mental health is both individual and collective, and the lines easily blur. Our brains are set up for us to be social creatures whose everyday existence depends on interactions with others in our community. As partners, when we perceive intimacy, our brains release oxytocin, binding us together and even solidifying the memories of that closeness. As babies, when our mothers hear us cry out, their brains release prolactin, which then signals milk release from their breasts. Yet, the cry doesn’t even need to be from their own baby. There is something biologically familiar, hard-wired, where even in a lab with no baby present, the sound waves of a baby’s cry can elicit milk release in a lactating woman. Our brains are reflexively wired for social interactions, facilitating our life in communities rather than in silos.
Still, reflexes are only the beginning of the complex interplay. Brain areas connect in ways where each connection impacts the next, strengthening the power of social interaction. Neurons innervate our facial muscles creating facial expressions that don’t just convey emotions to those around us. Those expressions actually create emotions within us. When we frown, we not only convey negative feelings, we actually feel more upset.
One of the most fascinating parts of this interplay however lies in the fact that we also generate that feeling in those who see us. A system of mirror neurons that fire up when someone else initiates an act, and then that act immediately creates a response in us. This is why smiling, or even yawning, is known to be contagious. This ability to intuitively experience another’s experience, to acknowledge it, to bear presence to it, is a large part of what makes us human.
Mirror neurons influence so many behaviors and feelings, and while they inform our instinctual reaction, they don’t define us or the choices we make. Our neocortex, the most advanced part of our brain, allows us the ability to self reflect, to be aware of not only the what of our feelings and behaviors, but also the why. When someone else is harmed, we flinch, and when someone else is frustrated at us, we become frustrated back. Yet, we can further train our brains to develop the altruistic responses to act when we see harm, or to return frustration with patience. We can be aware of days when our faces may be more likely to be plastered by frowns, and make conscious efforts to smile. We can consciously acknowledge the presence of others, whether by a subtle nod of the head or by a verbal affirmation. We can recognize the power we wield as social creatures and manipulate it for the benefit of ourselves and for others.
When we do get the chance to be safely with others, the crinkle of a smile emerging from the sides of one’s mask can melt loneliness and actually strengthens our brains. Not only does social life emerge from the brain, but it heals the brain, increasing gray matter and fortifying neural connections. Connection is not only metaphysical – it’s neuronal, and its upkeep, especially in times of COVID-19, can be particularly daunting. Now especially as social interactions increasingly dwindle, many of us long for days of bustling subways and crowded streets. Maybe in the aftermath of all this, we can rebuild healthier communities, one connection at a time. For now, we can make conscious efforts to seek out community, to express connection and to acknowledge the presence of every person we encounter.
Connections Health Tip #1: Smile – and smile often, fully, and easily
When we see someone smile, it activates brain cells called “mirror neurons” that immediately generate in us the feeling associated with smiling. When we smile at someone, they smile – then seeing their smile, we smile back, further strengthening the emotion. Studies show that just the act of smiling, even if not preceded by an emotion, can generate “happy” endorphins. So, even if you don’t feel like it, push yourself to smile and start off a cascade of contagion, for yourself and others.
Connections Health Tip #2: Acknowledge others
Studies show that isolation and disconnection are actually toxic for our brains. Take a moment to acknowledge someone. It will not only benefit them, but the act of recognizing another being also connects you as a social creature, empowering both you and them.
Connections Health Tip #3: Meditate
In the moments when our facial muscles are tight and we find it easier to frown than to smile, our face is sending neuronal messages to our brain, flooding us with negative feelings. Studies show that using Botox to loosen the muscles that promote frowns can actually improve depressive symptoms. Now, Botox can also weaken the muscles that promote smiling, decreasing mood, so I think a much safer option is to use progressive muscle relaxation through meditation. Take a breath and notice the expansion of your lungs, and then when you breathe out, notice the softening of various muscle groups. Do this a few times. Then the next time you take a deep breathe in, hold it and constrict different combinations of facial muscles. On the exhale, relax those same muscles and feel the release and softening. On some of the exhales, let the sides of your lips curl up into the beginnings of a smile. Do this daily for a week and you’ll notice how much easier it is to smile and how much better it feels. Smiling also reduces stress and lowers heart rate, so the benefits are great for your brain and your body. Check out our YouTube page here for our guided meditation and breathwork videos!
Connections Health Tip #4: Fake it til you make it?
In moments when our bodies are tense and entirely stressed, it can be near impossible to bring up authentic smiles. Luckily, even starting with fake ones can generate feeling to eventually make genuine smiles. For example, in a study where people held chopsticks in their mouths after stressful tasks, the group asked to carry the chopsticks in a manner that unknowingly formed a smile showed a faster physiological recovery from the stressful task. The muscles that activate on smiling seem to reflexively slow heart rate and relax our nervous systems. More genuine smiles do create larger effects, but I’d say that even forced smiles are worthwhile. It’s just pushing yourself a bit, and sometimes we have to start somewhere to get going.
Written by Dr. Tejal Kaur, founder and medical director of graymatters