The following article is featured in Issue 1 of the EQM Magazine in the Brain Blast section. This is available to read through our website at www.evolvepeertrust.com/eqm-magazine.
Neuroscience of Social Connection
Socializing can suck sometimes, especially if like me you experience severe social anxiety, leading to those dreaded awkward silences. But why do we even get nervous to talk to someone when it almost never goes as badly as we expected it would? We are going to explore a breakdown of two mechanisms and how they interact with each other; the threat response, and safety recognition.
Let’s start with something we have all experienced, fear. When we begin to feel fear, the brain interprets this as a potential threat. Two systems switch on as a result, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), and the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA). These systems create the fight or flight response, that panicked feeling of “I need to get out of here right now.” Your senses heighten, your heart rate and blood pressure increase, and the body gets flooded with adrenaline and cortisol. So why does this response occur in social situations? One reason is because of the fear of social rejection often caused by the instinct of knowing we are far more likely to die if kicked out of the pack; this is common for social animals such as ourselves, dogs, and meerkats. After the fear kicks in, the brain switches the SNS and HPA on in anticipation of physical injury. The immune system begins to pump out more proinflammatory cytokines - cytokines being little messengers our immune system uses to tell cells what to do. In our modern world, being kicked out of the pack is relative to anything from being unfriended on Facebook, to receiving negative criticism. Our brains take that social rejection and immediately conclude that we are now at a much higher risk of death. One study found that people who describe themselves as lonely showed increased levels of these proinflammatory cytokines; this is evidence that the threat response is engaged.
I mentioned safety recognition at the start of this article; it turns out that the regions of the brain that are involved with the feeling of being safe, when active, directly counteract the regions involved with fear. For example, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC), when active, lessens activity in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC), another region involved with the threat response. Additionally, greater activity in these safety related regions inhibits cortisol release, and helps the SNS calm down. Another thing the VMPFC does is regulate dopamine release for being safe. Dopamine is best described as the chemical of anticipation, meaning as the brain begins to learn social environments are safe, you begin to get shots of dopamine in anticipation of being in that social environment.
So you may be reading this and think “Well all this jargon sounds good, but how do I actually use this information? How can we teach the brain to not be afraid of socializing?” Well, unfortunately it’s not a pill or potion one can just take and voila, you’re a social butterfly. Instead it’s a slow process of dedication and commitment to socializing more often, even if it is uncomfortable at first; this is called ‘fear extinction’ or ‘learned safety’. One way, proven hugely beneficial through studies, is having a support person with you in socially stressful situations. When you have that support person, assuming you have a deep social connection with that person, oxytocin gets released. Oxytocin is nicknamed the ‘love chemical’ but is more accurately described as the ‘connection chemical’. When oxytocin is present, the amygdala, the biggest player in the threat response, is inhibited. Which has a huge trickle down effect of lowering cortisol and adrenaline levels, autonomic responses like heart rate and blood pressure, and so on. One particular study focusing on oxytocin and physical pain, found that the group of people who were presented a picture of a loved one, reported lower levels of pain compared to the group who weren’t presented a picture. So don’t be afraid to bring a close friend, sibling or even your mum to a WINZ appointment. A second method you can utilize is something called the physiological sigh. This is a breathing technique all of us already use, when we’re sobbing and you take in a very shaky, staggered breath. That breath signals the SNS to dial down and disengage. So this technique goes as follows: quickly take in one big breath that fills up 95% of your lungs, then another small breath to fill your lungs up completely, now slowly release all the air out to the count of five. You can do that four or five times, you should feel an almost instant calming effect. For more strategies and techniques please refer to the social anxiety tools and techniques section (page 12 digital version/page 13 physical version).
I know this can all be a bit overwhelming but I hope I have helped you gain a better understanding of some of the mysterious ways of our brain. Now you know your feelings of anxiety in social situations are completely natural, you can use your new strategies to face the world with a bit more confidence and know you will be OK.
What is the Sympathetic Nervous System?
The SNS is one of two branches of the Autonomic Nervous System, which is the system that controls things that we are unconscious of, heart rate or pupil dilation for example. The role of the SNS is to control the automatic responses when under threat. If you are being chased by a lion, the SNS will switch on and tell the body to do everything it needs to do to survive, like widening the passages to your lungs so you can get more oxygen in, or restricting blood flow to the intestines so that your muscles have more blood to use. The second branch is the Parasympathetic Nervous System, which does the opposite actions, so the SNS tells the lung passages to widen, and the PNS tells them to narrow.
What is the HPA Axis?
This axis is made up of three different components. One, the hypothalamus is what tells the other two components to start releasing cortisol and adrenaline. Two, the pituitary gland is responsible for the production of many hormones which are responsible for the production of other hormones. For example, ATCH is created in the pituitary, which goes and stimulates the production of cortisol. So when signaled by the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland releases its stores of hormone stimulants. Finally, the third component is the adrenal glands located by the kidneys. Like the pituitary gland, when told, releases adrenaline into the bloodstream.
What are cortisol and adrenaline?
Adrenaline is something we are pretty familiar with, it creates the desire to move and get out of whatever situation you have found yourself in. Cortisol is a hormone that increases awareness, people with chronic stress typically experience ‘hyper awareness’ which is a result of constant cortisol release. Cortisol also feeds more glucose (sugars), an energy resource, to the muscles. So in relation to the running from a lion metaphor, adrenaline makes you want to move, and cortisol makes you move faster.
What are cytokines?
Cytokines are little proteins that the immune system uses as messengers to tell cells what to do. For example, if you've got a small cut on your hand, the immune system dispatches proinflammatory cytokines to tell the cells around the cut to inflame. They are involved in many other processes such as blood cell production and regenerating damaged muscle tissue.
What are some of these brain regions mentioned?
Well with anything when it comes to the brain, everything is highly interconnected. The VMPFC for example serves as a binding site for many processes such as self-perception, social cognition, and decision making, while the dACC is involved in motor control and cognition. The amygdala is one that has been highly studied as it serves a critical role in our lives, it’s the central processor of fear and how we react whilst afraid. When we’re children the amygdala takes our experiences and picks and chooses what’s worthy of being afraid of, so if we have had many negative social experiences as kids, it will decide that social situations are to be afraid of.
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