When it comes to mental health, some advice is so familiar that it’s become a cliché – such as telling us we need to connect more.
In magazines, this well-meaning recommendation is as ubiquitous as ‘Get a colouring book’ or ‘Try eating your lunch outside’.
In therapy circles, it’s just as common.
Connecting with others when you are in a downward spiral of mental health difficulties is the ultimate example of opposite action.
Another strategy for improving our state of mind that is commonly advocated in dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT), opposite action involves doing the complete reverse of what we feel like. If we want to hideaway alone in bed, we should get out and mix with others.
Rather than ignore a message or call, we should answer.
'In the distant past, connection enabled us to survive. In the present, it remains a crucial element in our emotional wellbeing'
This makes sense. Humans are social creatures, hardwired for connection.
In the distant past, connection enabled us to survive. In the present, it remains a crucial element in our emotional wellbeing.
Living with loneliness
In her latest book, Braving The Wilderness (2017), social work professor and expert on shame and vulnerability Brené Brown quotes a survey which found that living with loneliness increases our odds of dying early by 45 percent – compared to 5 percent for air pollution, 20 percent for obesity and 30 percent for excessive drinking (p. 55).
However, connecting with others while battling with depression, anxiety and/or other mental health condition(s) is obviously easier said than done.
As with so many other aspects of everyday life, behaviour that is usually run of the mill, enjoyable even, feels impossible.
Struggling to connect with those closest to us
There is an additional layer of difficulty that I also encounter. When it comes to connection, I specifically struggle with seeing close friends and family.
Surely it should be easier to reach out to and spend time with our loved ones more than anyone else?
This may seem odd. It certainly feels odd to me. Surely it should be easier to reach out to and spend time with our loved ones more than anyone else?
Maybe it is for most people, but I strongly suspect that I’m not completely alone in encountering this phenomenon.
It’s difficult to admit to myself, let alone share publicly, but I’ve been emboldened by Brown’s new book to share my truth: when my Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) symptoms are at their worse, seeing family and friends ratchets my anxiety up to manic levels.
I’ve even found myself better able to socialise with strangers than those I know well. In June, a work trip took me to Madrid for a couple of days. I had a great time at work and play with the two women I met with at Heathrow T5 on the way there.
In contrast, a friend’s barbecue that weekend engendered total panic. I had to deploy breathing techniques and other distress tolerance tactics just to get there – and we were the first to leave.
This is an extreme case but I’ve experienced many similar incidents.
Finding it easier to connect with strangers
The more I know people, the more likely I am to struggle connecting with them.
Sometimes I can pinpoint why. Ahead of one wedding celebration, I foresaw that I might encounter a trigger. Sure enough, I did – and on that occasion did not feel equipped to handle it.
Often I’ve no idea why I find this so tough.
‘What kind of crazy person connects more easily with strangers than the people they love?’
I’ve heard plenty of suggestions from the few I’ve confided in about this. Maybe it’s rooted in our shared history. Maybe it’s the weight of expectation. Maybe it’s the power dynamics of the relationship or group.
Maybe it’s a combination of all these factors. I don’t know.
What I do know is that this predicament makes reaching out and connecting even more difficult. I become further isolated because I feel like a freak. ‘What kind of crazy person connects more easily with strangers than the people they love?’ taunt the inner voices that thrive during episodes of poor mental health.
Although I have no answers, I hope that by opening up and sharing, someone else feels less alone – because it’s easier for me to connect with a stranger across the web than discuss this with those involved.