In our continuing examination of The Depression Cure, Dr. Ilard identifies six key areas that lifestyle changes can significantly help prevent and even reverse depressive symptoms. The changes are: 1) Diet (Brain Food), 2) Engagement, 3) Exercise, 4) Light Therapy, 5) Social Connections and 6) Sleep.

This week we look at the area of Social Connections, which are commonly defined as the subjective experience of feeling close to and a sense of belongingness with others. It has been known for sometime that social connection is critical to our physical and mental wellbeing. As far back as 1988, an often quoted landmark study at the University of Michigan, demonstrated that a lack of social connection has a bigger impact on our health than obesity, smoking and high blood pressure. In 2010, Harvard Medical School research identified social connections as key to reducing harmful levels of stress which can affect coronary arteries, gut function insulin regulation and the immune system. Research has also demonstrated that people who feel connected to others experience less anxiety and depression.

Emma Seppala, the Science Director at Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education has written extensively on the importance and effects of social connections. Dr. Seppala describes the negative health impacts of low social connection to include increased anti-social behaviors and violence, increased depression even suicide, higher inflammation rates at the cellular level and overall slower recovery from diseases. On the more positive side, she describes the benefits of high social connection as creating a 50 percent increased chance of longevity, higher self-esteem, better emotional regulation skills, lower rates of anxiety and depression and stronger gene expression for immunity. She sums it up by saying that social connection creates a positive feedback loop for social, emotional and physical wellbeing.

The Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley notes in their magaznine that behavioral scientists and neuroscientist believe that we are essentially wired to connect with other people because natural selection favored humans with a stronger propensity to care for their offspring and organize into groups. Neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman puts it well in his book, ” Social: Why Our Brains are Wired to Connect”, “To the extent that we can characterize evolution as designing our modern brains, this is what our brains were wired for: reaching out to and interacting with others. These social adaptations are central to making us the most successful species on earth”.

Consider reaching out this week and increasing your own real social connections. Remember, social connection isn’t really about collecting Facebook friends, getting hundreds of ‘Likes” and having a busy social calendar. What really matters is quality of social connection over quantity. As one writer put it, if you feel connected, you are.

Next week, Mental Health Matters will explore another one of Dr. Ilard’s recommended key lifestyle changes.

Bill Mory is a Texoma-based licensed therapist in private practice. He integrates mindfulness training in working counseling clients and is a strong community-building advocate and a provider of workplace training on a variety of topics. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Herald Democrat.