“I thought there was something wrong with the self, and the solution would come from repairing and aggrandizing the self. I puffed it up. But it turns out- the self isn’t the solution. The only answer lies beyond it”.

–Johann Hari, Author of Lost Connections

I was twenty-two years old and in a kind of grief state due to a bad relationship that abruptly ended before my college graduation. I blamed myself for having put up with the unhealthy situation in the first place. I didn’t feel entitled to my sadness, I felt like a failed feminist and was ashamed of my choices. My self-loathing and generally poor coping caused me to retreat from others. I was sad, lonely, and heartbroken but I didn’t really talk about it.

The idea of seeking comfort and familiarity during this difficult period did not occur to me.  Instead, I made the decision to up and move to Los Angeles and become a Volunteer in Service to America (VISTA). Me, a girl who had only lived in small towns and was drawn to nature, now found herself living in L.A., without close friends, working on Skid Row, and living on a three hundred dollar per month stipend. It was a set up for some pretty hard core loneliness.

During that period on a rainy, winter night,  I reluctantly drove to a party. Bonnie Raitt blared on my cassette player. I turned left at a stop light and – bam- was hit by another car at high speed. In that colliding moment when my car spun, I felt relief. I thought “maybe I’m going to die, and this pain will finally end”. Scary, right? My air bag went off, my knee was all banged up, and my car was pretty much totaled, but I was generally fine, at least physically.  Not so okay on the emotional level.

By spring,  things got better. I started dating my now husband.  I wasn’t quite as depressed but still wasn’t completely well.  I found a good therapist. Still, I did not have a strong friend network and my job wasn’t a good fit for me. My self-concept was shaky. I was anxious and hard on myself, still struggling to find my way. I decided to take a leave of absence from work and signed up for a seven-week Outward Bound outdoor course. Nature seemed like the antidote I needed even though I had to leave my beautiful boyfriend for a few weeks.

I was reminded of my Outward Bound experience while listening to a recent podcast interview on The Ezra Klein Show. See the link above for the podcast. Klein interviews the author Johann Hari about his new book Lost Connections which focuses on social causes of anxiety and depression. Hari sees loneliness as a major part of the problem. He says we are essentially tribal creatures; we have an evolutionary need to stay close and connected for basic survival. When left alone in the wild, our ancestors did not survive.

It makes sense then that when we are isolated, we feel anxious and depressed. Disconnection from things like meaningful work, other people, meaningful values, basic social resources, and the natural world contribute, Hari says, to mental health problems. According to Hari, situations that cure loneliness are situations of mutual aid. Reciprocal relationships are healing.

Hari cites research conducted in four countries (Japan, China, Russia, U.S) on happiness. In the United States, when we consciously try to increase our happiness we aren’t successful because we tend to make choices that are individualistic.  In pursuit of “happiness” we Americans tend to buy something for ourselves, chase a self-improvement endeavor, or work hard to make more money. The focus for Americans tends to be on improving the individual experience. We pursue happiness for ourselves. In other countries, when people consciously try to make themselves happy, they do something for someone else and, in turn, they report feeling connected and truly happier.

Hari reports that our individualistic vision of happiness in the U.S. doesn’t work so well. We forget to choose kindness and connection. Hari found examples of people who struggled with depression and anxiety but then got better when other people were “standing by their side, committed to walking on the path with them, finding collective solutions”. Social bonds, mutual aid, and a sense of purpose and meaning in our lives are antidotes for anxiety and depression, yet we tend to make choices that don’t involve connection. And we’re often prescribed solitary remedies such as anti-depressants and tools to change our own thoughts and feelings; these interventions are sometimes helpful but would be more effective if we addressed more fully a suffering individual’s social situation.

My Outward Bound provided a “collective solution” to my own anxiety and depression. I knew the nature part would help me but I didn’t realize how important the collective part would be. For seven weeks, I hiked, white water river rafted, and canoed in the Texas Mexico border region with about twelve other people ranging in age from eighteen to twenty-two. Initially, I didn’t relate to many of the other participants and was often annoyed by an eighteen-year-old male who would not stop singing Rolling Stones songs during the most beautiful  portions of our canoe expeditions on the Rio Grande. We slept every night outside under tarps, lying close to each other for warmth. We woke at dawn to cook breakfast and break camp. We walked for miles every day, carrying our food and bedding on our backs. We showered once or twice in those seven weeks, otherwise, we rinsed off in the river. Some days and nights were very cold; I hated that! I had a bout of flu during a portion of the trip. We cooked for each other, relied on each other. We ate a lot of trail mix and made griddle fried biscuits that were more hockey puck than food.

Despite the interpersonal irritations and physical hardships, something miraculous happened toward the last portion of the trip. The constant fluttering tightness in my chest, that nagging, anxious sensation of not getting enough air, left. Morning feelings of restlessness and dread disappeared. A sense of peace and safety settled in. When I stood in a circle around the fire with fellow participants, I felt rooted, my feet solid on the ground.  I belonged. I was taken care of and safe in my tribe.

The daily act of working together as a unit and relying on each other for survival soothed me. If I didn’t do my share of the work each day, then others suffered.  My contributions, like every other member, were vital to the functioning of the group.  Even though I had no roof over my head, I was protected. Community and nature, the strong flow of the Rio Grande, washed away much of my sadness. I found relief through what research shows to be helpful for many mental health issues – consistent exposure to nature and a sense of connection and belonging.

At the end of his book, Lost Connections, Hari wishes he could give this advice to his younger self: “you have to turn now to all the other wounded people around you, and find a way to connect with them, and build a home with these people-a place where you are bonded to one another and find meaning in your lives together”.  I could have used that advice too and maybe reduced my suffering just a little sooner. Returning to L.A. brought back some of the old anxieties, I still needed time to heal and let myself be loved again. I hadn’t found meaningful work or a community where I truly belonged. I had a sweet, budding new relationship but not the strong tribe that Outward Bound offered.

Still, the sense of safety and meaning I found through Outward Bound has been a helpful guide for me. I know I’m happiest when I’m truly connected to others, when emotional sharing is high and mutual with my husband, when I’m involved in work and recreational groups, when I’m connected to my children, friends, and colleagues, when I feel valued, and when I’m in nature. When I feel down, I now know better how to seek comfort from others, to talk about my pain, and find solace in group belonging and intimate connection.

I know I am lucky.  I grew up with some economic privilege and advantages that many people don’t have.  I could and do access resources that help me stay connected to others. Many people I have worked with or known in my personal life are fused with some painful, negative stories about themselves that are blocks to connecting easily with others. Many grow up feeling that they don’t or can’t fit in because of trauma and abuse in their histories that impact how they see themselves and others. Many deal with social biases toward their ethnic, gender, or sexual differences or grow up poor without a safe future to count on.  Klein’s  interview with Hari and Hari’s book reminds me to think about social causes of disconnection and the need to support people in finding community despite the many obstacles. It seems unfair to ask people to fix their sadness and fear on their own when what they need, what we all truly need, is the closeness of others.

 

One thought on “Disconnection: A Root Cause of Anxiety and Depression?”

  1. Rachel McMichael says:

    That was inspiring, genuine, and real. Thank you. I agree that connections and community are the key to happiness. And it is true that feeling lonely and disconnected is too common in our society where we are valued for our individual successes and achievements over our connections to others.

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