How Creating a Community Can Boost Mental Health

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May 29, 2019 - DC, DE, MD, VA Florida Maine New England New Jersey, New York and PA North and South Carolina

An important key to a healthy body and mind is being part of a supportive community.

The building blocks to a healthy life are generally straightforward: healthy eating, physical activity, not smoking, getting enough quality sleep and similar behaviors. But another important key to a healthy body and mind is being part of a supportive community.

"As human beings, we're social pack animals," explained Amy Banks, MD, Director of Advanced Training at the nonprofit Growth in Connection and Senior Scholar at the Wellesley Centers for Women. "Our entire physiology – how we're wired and all our other systems – are acutely sensitive to other human beings, whether it's partnerships or friendships or communities," said Dr. Banks, who researches the negative health effects of loneliness. "It means we function best and we're healthiest when we're in safe relationships."

The liability of loneliness

"The adverse health effects of loneliness are pretty well documented," agreed Vipan Nikore, MD, MBA, Chief Medical Director of TD Bank Group and an internal medicine physician at Cleveland Clinic Foundation and Trillium Health Partners. "It's been estimated that the negative effects of loneliness are equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day." Research strongly links loneliness to cardiovascular disease, depression, poor sleep and other negative effects on physical and mental health, he added.

Over time, lack of strong relationships even wears down the immune system, making people more susceptible to infections, Dr. Banks said. "Our entire stress response system is built around this idea of belonging to and with other people," she said, adding that loneliness activates the same part of the brain as physical pain. "This idea of not having a community to belong with is so dangerous to a human being that it shares an alarm system with physical pain."

Community as a potential cure

Belonging to a community protects against loneliness, Dr. Nikore said. "It's not really a place. It's that feeling of strong relationships where there's a sense of belonging, trust, support and caring for each other," he said. Though the members of a community may not share the same characteristics – healthy communities can include people with diverse backgrounds – the relationships help people become their best, and healthiest, selves.

People can find a community almost anywhere. Work can be one source, Dr. Nikore said, as can hobby groups, volunteering and physical activities with others. Community also grows from simple actions, such as visiting a neighbor, chatting with other customers in a coffee shop , or helping a stranger who needs a hand. Think of these as random acts of health. After all, Dr. Nikore said, "being a part of that community allows people to improve their health and wellbeing."

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