Sarah came into my office with an unusual bounce in her energy. Her eyes lit up as she began to describe a recent event in her life.
“I was having that medical test I told you about, and I did what you suggested – I brought my friend along. You know I usually don’t like to bother people with what’s going on with me, let alone ask them to take the time to be with me – so it was a big deal to ask her. But I kept thinking about what you told me about the effects of having company, and I decided I needed to take the risk. And it worked! You know how scared I am about tests and how worried I get, and even knowing that she was going to be there – I slept just fine the night before, and I was so calm when I went into the office. The test wasn’t easy – but I was so much more relaxed than I have been before when I was alone. I really want to think about how I can do this next time.”
Sarah and I have been talking about how hard it is for her to go through procedures or tests. She is anxious, dreads what might happen, and feels exhausted and sad after every one. Her thought was she needed to “manage herself” better.
Recent research in neuroscience has suggested that our brains are built to expect social connection and the presence of another. This means that “self management” is not what we are created to do. We are wired to be embedded is relationships – and that is especially true when we are facing something we find daunting or risky or frightening.
The presence of another makes a difference to our brains and our nervous systems. We have more physical and emotional resources released to deal with whatever is happening. It doesn’t even have to be a friend or loved one. The benefits are there even if it is a trusted stranger, like a nurse or technician who is standing close, or even better, holding hands when we are in the midst of something difficult.
The research suggests that the social presence of another is perceived by the brain to be a “metabolic resource” like oxygen or sugar and it changes the way we perceive the event. We feel more capable, less anxious, and even feel pain less intensely.
So how might you bring this into your life?
Listen for the times you tell yourself you have to “go it alone.”
Our culture has put a premium on this message, and maybe you were raised in an environment that really rewarded “independence” and managing things by yourself. What we are learning is that our about our beautiful brains never got that message. In fact, what helps us be our best is the opposite – finding ways to be connected with each other releases our energy and helps us do more. Listen for those times when you judge yourself or force yourself to “do this by myself.” Begin to tell yourself a different story.
Build your community of support.
The first place to begin is to challenge your own rugged individualism by practicing asking others to be present with you. It will take practice for most of us, as it did with Sarah. We are not taught that it’s ok to ask for someone to be with us. But begin there, helping yourself remember, people like to be needed. You can ask one of the people around when you have a procedure like a nurse or technician to be beside you. It may not always be possible to have a physical presence of someone you love and trust, but you can also help yourself by bringing a picture or representative symbol of someone, or even of a beloved animal, or part of nature. Bring that into your imagination to remind yourself you are not alone.
Even as you read this, you may find yourself resisting. So experiment – try it out and see what helps you most.
The main takeaway is that we are not meant to be alone – especially as we go through difficult things. My best to you as you work with this in your life.