Episode 26: Community: The Missing Link in Mental Health Treatment with Jenna Hamm
written by Jenna Hamm (Clinical Social Work/Therapy) on 06/02/20
One of the concepts that I talk about a lot in my clinical practice is ‘safety signals’: feelings, words, and symbols that you can focus on to shift your internal experience towards comfort and security. I use exercises like grounding, which involves activating all five senses and noticing that the environment that you’re in is free of danger. For some clients, it might also be helpful to repeat the words: “in this moment, I am safe”. But like most therapeutic work, these are independent coping strategies and from an evolutionary perspective, the biggest signs of safety for human beings have been connection and belonging.
For most of human history, people lived within close-knit communities; raising children together, hunting and foraging food together, and supporting one another in times of distress or loss. Our new norm in the West, however, is to live in single-family households, not knowing our neighbours well, independently raising our children with inadequate support systems, all the while the pressure for achievement and productivity increases. In other words, we are expected to do more with less and I believe that this is one of the primary causes of the increasing rates of mental health disorders today.
There have been countless studies demonstrating the correlation between social ties and human health. One that I found particularly fascinating was able to show that relationships had a greater impact on cardiovascular health than diet. The researchers studied a group of men living in a tribal community who, by all accounts, had a terrible diet, and yet they had reduced rates of heart disease. I used to discount the idea that emotions are stored in parts of the body, like the heart and the hips, as is often taught in yoga, because it made little scientific sense to me, but as always, science is catching up to ancient wisdom.
So what do we do with this knowledge while living in a society that isn’t set up for connection? We create it. We find our tribe. We shift our priorities towards social activities and away from uber independence. We ask for help and accept it when it is offered. We join book clubs, exercise classes, have people over for dinner, talk to our neighbours, put down our phones, and leave work at work.
I’m not saying it’s easy, it’s an incredible feat to let go of the patterned beliefs and behaviours that we’ve known for a lifetime but I can assure you that increased social connection is a change worth making.
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