The energy I put out into the world matters. It matters that I reach out and connect. It matters that I invest in relationships. Our human receptors are sensitive and powerful. We are pack animals. It’s our evolutionary advantage to be communal creatures. Biologically we are wired to develop and maintain relationships with neighbors, family, friends…
Connection with another person, face to face or voice to ear has a chemical impact on us. Real connection delivers the neurotransmitter oxytocin to our brains.
“Oxytocin, known also as the love hormone, provokes feelings of contentment, calmness, and security...Oxytocin is associated with secure human to human bonds,”
(Olds and Schwartz, Harvard Medical School, Department of Neurobiology)
I know instinctually and logically that reaching out to a loved one in my grief is healing and restorative.
I crave isolation. My aversion to large groups has been part of me for as long as I can remember, getting in the way of potential fun and adventures. Even events I’m looking forward to, I need a little pep talk. As my mom said, “You’re not a joiner.” I burrow in my artwork and my reading and writing, I happily pass hours fixated on a project that keeps me home alone. As an introvert, I need to recharge by spending time alone, but I sometimes struggle to recognize the line between recharging and detrimental isolation. Too much time alone allows me to lean into the voices of self-criticism. Those messages get unconsciously louder and stronger until I’m small and cornered in that room — no voice of my own to fight it off.
In my grief, I must choose to connect. Honesty and openness with trusted people — that is how I ask the for the energy I need to navigate and ultimately thrive. It’s a series of hurdle-jumps to get from isolation to open, especially when it comes to my grief.
It starts with a “good morning” to a few neighbors while I’m taking the dog for his first walk. The divine good morning’s that put a connection to my neighbor above my navel-gazing sorrow. It’s a first step into the day reminding me that I am an accomplice in my life – I am present if I choose.
If I can manage a phone call to ask about a friend’s goings on or tell them where I’m honestly at in this process…it will save me from eating a box of Life cereal, or falling into an Instagram hole, or one-click buying on Amazon.
Eating an Oreo (or a retweet, or an Insta like, or adding to my cart) releases the neurotransmitter dopamine which makes me feel invulnerable, but wears off in about 20 mins. Our human bodies build a dopamine tolerance: what worked today will need to be doubled for the same effect tomorrow; one cookie on Monday will be two on Tuesday, four on Wednesday, maybe 6 plus a purchase on Amazon on Thursday, and an all-out-Netflix-junk food binge on Friday. Compared to human connection — a call or walk with a trusted friend that delivers oxytocin to my brain. Oxytocin releases a feeling of well-being and lasts about a day without triggering the desperate desire for More. Meaning, a cookie can make me feel good for a half hour but a 10 minute call can make me feel secure for the rest of the day.
The phone, I understand, is sometimes the heaviest object in the world; picking up the phone feels like an impossible burden. Calling someone or answering the phone can be so challenging when I’m in the murky grief swamp. When possible, I try extra hard to reach out. Dad used to say that the gym counts double if you go when you don’t feel like it. What he meant was this: overcoming your current neural pathways and wiring, will create new easier and healthier habits over time — oh the magic of neuroplasticity. Stick with it because of the resistance, and soon it will be routine.
To anyone in those early or markedly difficult weeks of grieving, I can say this from experience: the phone gets lighter. The phone gets lighter. The phone gets lighter.