Author Shasta Nelson expounds on the importance of healthy relationships at last week’s Women in Business Breakfast.

Featured Summit speaker explores the impact of loneliness

By Janet Weyandt and Stacie Fowler, YSN

Pop quiz: What is the most consequential factor in determining how healthy you are?

If you think it’s diet, exercise or virtually anything else, you’re missing the most important ingredient for a healthy, happy life. At the Women in Business breakfast at BrandSource’s Summit in Las Vegas, author and social relationship expert Shasta Nelson kept the packed room laughing and thinking as she shared key research and philosophy about the impact social relationships have on our health and wellbeing. 

Loneliness: The Hidden Health Hazard

The biggest threat to our health is loneliness, Nelson said, but the word is deceptive. 

“Loneliness looks different than we think it does,” she said. “Today’s loneliness is not about lack of interaction. We’re not lonely because we need to be around more people, we’re lonely for lack of intimacy. We don’t want to go talk to more people, we’re lonely because we need to be more heard. We’re not lonely because we need to go meet more people, we’re lonely because we want to feel more met.”

In fact, there is a loneliness epidemic in the U.S., according to an advisory issued last year by Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy. 

“It’s dangerous if we deny that feeling,” Nelson continued. “We need to stop trying to defend ourselves and pretend we’re OK. Every single one of us needs connection and most of us aren’t getting it. For us to kid ourselves into thinking we can be OK not feeling the relationships we want to have, is doing damage to our bodies.”

Nelson quoted from several studies, including one that tested the stress hormones in women who were intermittently shocked with an electric current. The women who endured the test alone were flooded with cortisol; those who had a hand to hold experienced a third of the amount of stress. 

Three Ingredients for Healthy Social Relationships

Nelson told the primarily female audience that healthy relationships have three components: Positivity, consistency and vulnerability. Presenting it as a triangle-shaped continuum, she said relationships start with positivity — sometimes referred to as chemistry — which draws strangers together and forms the basis of a new friendship. 

After that, a relationship needs consistency. If you meet a fantastic person who you never see again, you wouldn’t call that person a friend. It takes 200 hours together to be good friends, Nelson said, which is why most adults form social relationships with their co-workers, with whom they have the most consistency. 

The third component is vulnerability, which can take the form of expressing opinions and emotions, asking for help and telling personal stories. This is where we discover whether we’re emotionally safe with our new friend, and without that it’s not a healthy relationship. 

The Loneliness Scale

Nelson described loneliness as a spectrum similar to hunger.

“It’s not bad to be hungry,” she said. “It’s OK to be hungry and then meet the need. Loneliness same thing as hunger — it’s your body telling you you have a need that isn’t being met. You don’t shame yourself for being hungry. We need to get to the same place with loneliness.”

But loneliness causes severe physical side effects, she said. For instance, feeling disconnected is worse for your health than obesity, smoking 15 cigarettes a day or being a lifelong alcoholic. Other health risks of loneliness include: 

  • 29% increased risk of heart disease
  • 32% increased risk of stroke
  • 50% higher risk of dementia in older adults
  • 60% higher risk of premature death 

On the flipside, 70% of our happiness is related to the health of our social connections, Nelson said.

“If you want to change your happiness, 70% comes down to your relationships,” she noted. “You can get everything else you think you need to make you happy and it’s going to amount to 30%.”

Nelson also explained how emotional intelligence, or EQ, plays a role in our physical health and social relationships. Unless we can accurately describe how we feel, she argued, we’ll soothe the wrong ache, and 80% of people have a hard time labeling how they feel. 

“I want to accurately identify what I’m feeling and manage my feeling back to a place of peace,” she said. “Unfortunately, if you don’t do the first one right, if you don’t call it loneliness, you won’t have the right strategy. If you call it hunger, what are you going to do instead? Eat. If you call it boredom, you’re going to turn on the TV or try to stay busy.”

The solution, she said, is to ask yourself some key questions. 

“Check in with yourself: Is this possibly loneliness?” she said. “How loved and supported do I feel right now?”

Nelson, who has written several books on the topic of social relationships, encouraged the audience to think about their connections with friends and loved ones and make building healthy connections a priority. 

“We are meant to feel loved and supported,” she said. “You absolutely want to be paying attention to this. At your core, you matter.”

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