SOURCE CREDIT: The Deceptive Power of Love’s First Moments: Published on July 13, 2012 by Susan Heitler, Ph.D. in Resolution, Not Conflict at Psychology Today
New love is the ultimate turn on. In the first moments and days of love, the neuro-chemicals that create feelings of happiness all explode out the starter gate. But does an explosion of happiness chemicals that triggers the thought “I want this person to be in my life forever!” necessarily mean that you and your new love would in fact make good chemistry together forever?Before you make a mad dash to the altar, better read on.
Why do decisions to marry that are made in the early exciting stage of love, the stage of infatuation, so often turn out to be a big mistake?
I recently read an exceptionally clear explanation.
The recent controversy over the still-developing DSM-5 — that compendium of mental disorders the media love to call, inappropriately, “The Bible of Psychiatry” –has gotten me thinking about loneliness. Now, thankfully, nobody has seriously proposed including loneliness in the DSM-5. Indeed, loneliness is usually thought of as simply an unpleasant part of life — one of the “slings and arrows” that pierce almost all of us from time to time. Loneliness, in some ways, remains enmeshed in a web of literary and cultural clichés, born of such works as Nathaniel West’s darkly comic novel, Miss Lonelyhearts, and the Beatles’ whimsical anthem, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”
But loneliness turns out to be a serious matter. And as psychiatry debates the diagnostic minutiae of DSM-5, all of us may need to remind ourselves that millions in this country struggle against the downward tug of loneliness. Yet even among health care professionals, few seem aware that loneliness is closely linked with numerous emotional and physical ills, particular among the elderly and infirm.
It’s easy to assume that loneliness is simply a matter of mind and mood. Yet recent evidence suggests that loneliness may injure the body in surprising ways. Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine studied the risk of coronary heart disease over a 19-year period, in a community sample of men and women. The study found that among women, high degrees of loneliness were associated with increased risk of heart disease, even after controlling for age, race, marital status, depression and several other confounding variables. (In an email message to me, the lead author, Dr. Rebecca C. Thurston, PhD, speculated that the male subjects might have been more reluctant to acknowledge their feelings of loneliness).
Similarly, Dr. Dara Sorkin and her colleagues at the University of California, Irvine, found that for every increase in the level of loneliness in a sample of 180 older adults, there was a threefold increase in the odds of having heart disease. Conversely, among individuals who felt they had companionship or social support, the likelihood of having heart disease decreased.
The young, of course, are far from immune to loneliness. Researchers at Aarhus University in Denmark studied loneliness in a population of adolescent boys with autism spectrum disorders (an area of great controversy in the proposed DSM-5 criteria). More than a fifth of the sample described themselves as “often or always” feeling lonely—a finding that seems to run counter to the notion that those with autism are emotionally disconnected from other people. Furthermore, the study found that the more social support these boys received, the lower their degree of loneliness. We have no cure for autism in adolescents–but the remedy for loneliness in these kids may be as close as the nearest friend.
And lest there be any doubt that loneliness has far ranging effects on the health of the body, consider the intriguing findings from Dr. S.W. Cole and colleagues, at the UCLA School of Medicine. These researchers looked at levels of gene activity in the white blood cells of individuals with either high or low levels of loneliness. Subjects with high levels of subjective social isolation—basically, loneliness — showed evidence of an over-active inflammatory response. These same lonely subjects showed reduced activity in genes that normally suppress inflammation. Such gene effects could explain reports of higher rates of inflammatory disease in those experiencing loneliness.
Could inflammatory changes, in turn, explain the correlation between loneliness and heart disease? Inflammation is known to play an important role in coronary artery disease. But loneliness by itself may be just one domino in the chain of causation. According to Dr. Heather S. Lett and colleagues at Duke University Medical Center, the perception of poor social support — in effect, loneliness — is a risk factor for development, or worsening, of clinical depression. Depression may in turn bring about inflammatory changes in the heart that lead to frank heart disease. This complicated pathway is still speculative, but plausible.
Loneliness, of course, is not synonymous with “being alone.” Many individuals who live alone do not feel “lonely.” Indeed, some seem to revel in their aloneness. Perhaps this is what theologian Paul Tillich had in mind when he observed that language “… has created the word “loneliness” to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word “solitude” to express the glory of being alone.” Conversely, some people feel “alone” or disconnected from others, even when surrounded with people.
Let’s admit that not everybody is capable of experiencing the “glory of being alone” or of transforming loneliness into “solitude.” So what can a socially-isolated person do to avoid loneliness and its associated health problems? Joining a local support group can help decrease isolation; allow friendships to form; and give the lonely person an opportunity both to receive and to provide help. This reciprocity can bolster the lonely person’s ego and improve overall well-being. Support groups geared to particular medical conditions can also help reduce disease-related complications. Although there are always risks in going “on line” to find support, Daily Strength appears to be a legitimate and helpful website for locating support groups of all types, including those for loneliness. Psych Central also provides opportunities to exchange ideas and “connect” with many individuals who feel isolated or alone. For those who feel lonely even in the midst of friends, individual psychotherapy may be helpful, since this paradoxical feeling often stems from a fear of “getting close” to others.
No, loneliness is not a disease or disorder. It certainly shouldn’t appear in the DSM-5 — but it should be on our minds, as a serious public health problem. Fortunately, the “treatment” may be as simple as reaching out to another human being, with compassion and understanding.
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One of the least-praised pleasures in life — and yet one that is probably most likely to bring lasting happiness — is the ability to be happy for others. When we think about empathy, we tend to think of feeling other people’s pain — but feeling other people’s joy gets short shrift That must change if we want to have a more empathetic society.
While working on our forthcoming book, Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential — and Endangered (my co-author is leading child trauma expert Bruce Perry, MD, PhD), one of the most common questions I’ve gotten is, “What can parents do to raise more empathetic children?”
And, as I talked about sharing joy with a friend last week, I thought again about just how important the pleasurable part of empathy is in parenting. Sharing pleasure is actually one of our earliest experiences: consider the way a baby’s smile lights up a room and all the silly things adults will do to elicit these little expressions of happiness and connection. Videos of laughing babies delight us for the same reason. [I dare you to resist the laughing quads!]
Cuteness is nature’s way of getting us through the most difficult and demanding parts of parenting: if babies weren’t so darn cute, few people would be able to take the dirty diapers and other drudgery of caring for them. But their smiles and laughs are overwhelmingly infectious.
It’s this same early dance between parent and child that instills empathy in the first place. We all have the natural capacity (in the absence of some brain disorders) for empathy. However, like language, empathy requires particular experiences to promote learning. The ‘words” and “grammar” of empathy are taught first via early nurturing experiences.
Without responsive parenting, though, babies don’t learn to connect people with pleasure. If your smiles aren’t returned with joy, it’s as though you are being asked to learn to speak without anyone ever talking to you. The brain expects certain experiences to guide its development — if these don’t occur at the right time, the capacity to learn them can be reduced or even lost.
So, most of us come into the world and receive parenting that implicitly teaches us that joy is shared. Babies don’t just smile spontaneously — they also smile radiantly back when people smile at them. The back and forth of these smiles, the connection, disconnection, reconnection and its rhythm teaches us that your happiness is mine, too.
Over time, unfortunately, we learn that we are separate beings and sometimes come to see other people’s happiness as a threat or a sign that we’ve lost a competition, rather than something we can share.
This, of course, is natural, too: we are also normally born with an acute sense of fairness and justice that makes us sensitive to say, whether our older brother’s toys are nicer than ours. While cries of “that’s not fair” are the bane of many parents’ existence, they’re not just selfish. They’re part of a social sense that we should
receive equal treatment.
How, then, can we help kids to develop both their sense of justice and the ability to share joy?
One key is making the implicit explicit. When we see kids smiling in response to others, point out how seeing someone else smile made them feel good; when we see that they enjoy our reaction to their artwork and gifts, praise them for being happy for us. Saying that “it’s better to give than receive,” may ring hollow — pointing out when children are actually experiencing the feeling of taking joy in giving is much more powerful.
Allowing children to own this ability and recognize it in themselves will also encourage it — helping them to define themselves as the kind of people who are happy for other people will make them feel like good people, too. Encouraging such an identity will reinforce other positive behaviors as well. Changing behavior to suit an identity you prefer is actually one of the easiest ways to make changes.
Further, rather than calling kids selfish or self-interested when they protest about someone else getting what seems like something better, reframe this as a concern for justice and ask them to look out for when what seems unfair is unfair in their own favor, too. Children who see themselves as being “bad” or “selfish” will unfortunately take on that identity, too — if they don’t recognize their own prosocial behavior, they can’t enhance it and may embrace a very negative view of their own desires and drives.
Sadly, as a society, for centuries we have embraced a view of human nature that is selfish and competitive — with evolution being described as a contest in which the most ruthless are always likely to be the winners. In fact, research is now showing that, at least in humans, kindness is also a critical part of fitness.
For one, both men and women typically describe kindness as one of the top three characteristics they seek in a mate (sense of humor and intelligence are the other top two picks; gender differences in valuing attractiveness and resources come lower on the list).
Second, the ability to nurture and connect is critical for the survival of human children: in hunter/gatherer societies, the presence of older siblings and grandmothers can be even more important to child survival than the presence of fathers according to Sarah Hrdy’s research, suggesting that cooperation in childrearing made genetic survival more likely — not competition.
This means that human nature isn’t the selfish, sociopathic murk we’ve been told it is. While we are certainly no angels, our altruistic side is equally real. To create a more empathetic world, we need to own this as adults as we teach it to our kids.
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