Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Connection ...

... love and intimacy are among the most powerful factors in health and illness, even though these ideas are largely ignored by the medical profession. ... I am not aware of any other factor in medicine - not diet, not smoking, not exercise, not stress, not genetics, not drugs, not surgery - that has a greater impact on our quality of life, incidence of illness, and premature death from all causes.

Dean Ornish, MD

Dean Ornish, an American cardiologist and founder of the Centre for Integrative Medicine in San Francisco, (best known for his use of a very low fat diet to reduce or reverse coronary artery disease), has also spent a number of years studying the effects of love and intimacy - an open heart - on our health and wellness.

In his 1997 book, Love and Survival: The Scientific Basis for the Healing Power of Intimacy, Ornish writes:
The real epidemic in our culture is not only physical heart disease, but also what I call emotional and spiritual heart disease - that is, the profound feelings of loneliness, isolation, alienation, and depression that are so prevalent in our culture with the breakdown of the social structures that used to provide us with a sense of connection and community.

He goes on to say that loneliness and isolation affect our health in several ways:

1.  They increase the likelihood that we may engage in behaviours like smoking and overeating that adversely affect our health and decrease the likelihood that we will make lifestyle choices that are life-enhancing rather than self-destructive. 
2.  They increase the likelihood of disease and premature death from all causes by 200-500 percent or more, independent of behaviours, through different mechanisms, many of which are not fully understood.
3.  They keep us from fully experiencing the joy of everyday life.   

In short, anything that promotes a sense of isolation often leads to illness and suffering. And anything that promotes a sense of love and intimacy, connection and community, is healing.

So, what does this say to us as helpers? It reminds us of the vital importance of creating and sustaining supportive relationships in which we can be ourselves, transparently and authentically. Compassion fatigue, burnout and accumulated grief all cause our hearts to close and we disengage from family and friends, colleagues, and care recipients. Wellness opens our hearts, enabling us to be emotionally aware, to disclose our emotions in a mindful way, to listen carefully to what the other person is feeling, and to acknowledge that person's feelings with empathy, caring and compassion.

It can be difficult, at times, to maintain healthy connections but, as we can see above, its worth making the effort. I remember becoming more and more isolated over the years of caring for my husband. I felt deeply connected to him but had only a few other  relationships that I continued to nurture actively. There just weren't enough hours or energy in the day.

It wasn't until the last three years of his life, when Derrick became confined to bed and I had to organize a rota of friends to stay with him whenever I left the house, that I realized how much I had missed and needed mes amis. As different folks came to the house on Wednesday and Saturday mornings, I went out to do errands and then returned to have a cuppa with whomever was there. Those visits were God-sends. Not only was I able to connect with loved ones, but with loved ones who got our situation because they'd just spend the morning with my husband. We were able to have honest, open-hearted conversations that allowed our care and compassion to flow and it was so good.

So, if you have been too busy, too tired, too scattered, too sad, too irritable or too fed up to connect with your friends for the past while, why not consider giving someone a call and arranging a date for lunch or coffee or a chat on the phone. It's always okay to limit the time from the onset if you're really tired or afraid of getting overwhelmed - "I only have twenty minutes, but I've been missing you and wanted to connect." Choose who you call wisely and you may be surprised to see just how much better you feel after the conversation.

ps  I will be re-connecting with loved ones over Spring Break and the Easter weekend, myself, so I won't be back in the office until Tuesday April 2nd. In the meantime, I wish each of you a very Happy Easter and all the blessings and veriditas of Spring.  Jan

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