“If only you could sense how important you are to the lives of those you meet; how important you can be to the people you may never even dream of. There is something of yourself that you leave at every meeting with another person.”
– Fred Rogers
In this article, we’re going to go out on a limb and discuss one impact of the pandemic, lockdowns, and mask wearing.
Please stick with us here…
We’re stepping beyond the polarizing nature of this subject and instead focusing on one aspect that we can all relate to: the disconnection we’ve all experienced this past year (as well as an idea for how to counteract it 🙂 ).
The unseen danger of disconnection…
We’re hardwired for connection.
Each of us needs to feel validated and acknowledged. We need to ‘see’ others and to also ‘be seen’.
This is why solitary confinement in prison is the ultimate punishment (and a very cruel practice).
Our need for connection is so deep that if we don’t have connection as infants, we will die even if we’re fed enough food to grow.
If you’re not familiar with the famous ‘Still Face’ experiment, watching this short video is an excellent example of how hardwired we are for connection (warning, this video can trigger some painful internal responses to abandonment-related traumas any of us may have experienced in our lives):
The bottom line is that we’re social beings. We need connection. Our health and happiness depend on it.
Without adequate connection, we’re prone to experiencing feelings of isolation, confusion, fear, anxiety, and depression.
What does this have to do with oral health?
Emotions all serve a purpose, so it’s normal and healthy to experience a whole range of them throughout our lives (even the ones that we tend to have negative associations with, like anger or sadness).
However, if we don’t know how to work through our emotions in a healthy way and/or if an ongoing circumstance (like lack of adequate human connection) causes us to get ‘stuck’ in our feelings of isolation, anxiety, fear, etc., then that emotional pattern can put chronic stress on our systems.
And, as we mention in our article, Is Stress the Primary Cause of Gum Disease?, prolonged stress can alter our physiology and contribute to oral (and whole-body) health issues.
Masks, social distancing, and disconnection…
Whether you agree or disagree with how the global governments handled the pandemic, now that communities around the world are slowly opening back up, it’s very important that we actively seek connection.
Here’s the story of how this realization dawned on us.
An epiphany during a recent waterfall hike…
Around the time when Oregon lifted its mask mandate, we happened to go for a hike in a beautiful waterfall location that gets quite a bit of tourist activity. It was a gorgeous early summer day with views of families frolicking in the river, friends gathering and playing music together, etc.
We noticed lots of people on the trails who were not wearing masks.
Of course, some people still chose to wear masks (and we completely support each person’s right to make their own choice on this matter).
Some of the people on the trail (like us) were beaming, happy to see the smiling faces of the passersby.
However, most of the people weren’t looking at one another or saying hi, even while passing each other on a narrow trail. Regardless of whether or not they were wearing a mask, the common trend we saw was a continuation of what we’ve all become accustomed to for the past year: heads down and body postures that signaled disengagement.
Then it dawned on us.
Wearing masks this past year has conditioned us to not seek face-to-face connections with others.
Through this past year of unprecedented times, social distancing and not seeing one another’s faces has impacted our experience of connection with others. Yes, many of us were able to use online video conferencing platforms to keep in touch with colleagues and loved ones, and that’s great.
However, when we interact with a friend on a screen, we don’t satisfy our need for connection in the same way that we do when we sit in person with that same friend and chat over a cup of tea.
The problem we identified during this hike…
The important point here is this: even the people who were hiking without masks were still demonstrating the same level of disconnection (eyes down, not saying hi, etc.) that we all got used to over the past year of wearing masks.
In other words, to get back to connecting with others, we must take active steps to recondition ourselves and change the habit that was established by a year of mask wearing.
Dr Stephen Porghes, the researcher behind the Polyvagal theory, says two actions are required to create a new neural pathway (aka ‘habit’).
First, we must make the implicit explicit.
In other words, we must notice something that most often goes unnoticed.
In this case, we noticed that, mask or no mask, the current passersby were much less likely to engage with their fellow humans than most passersby we’d encountered prior to the pandemic.
The second step to creating a new neural pathway is to notice the difference between the two behaviors.
In this example, we noticed that people (us included) are less happy when we do things that make us feel disconnected from others. Conversely, we’re happier when we do things that make us feel connected with others.
The solution to the conditioned disconnection…
Here’s the thing…
In order to form a new habit, we have to actively seek to change the current behavior that we’ve habituated.
In this case, we encourage you to actively push against the habit of disconnection.
The way we chose to push against this habit during our hike was to greet passersby with something like, “It sure is great to see so many smiling faces, isn’t it?” or, “It’s great to see your smiling face on this beautiful day!”
We encourage you to come up with a way to challenge yourself to step across the disconnection that we’ve all inadvertently habituated. It can be a little uncomfortable to engage with strangers and be vulnerable like this at first, but the connections and bright smiles that we receive in return are well worth bumping up against our comfort zones.
Why is it important to challenge this disconnection?
If we don’t intentionally push against these alienating habits of keeping our heads down, not saying hi, and not sharing our smile with others, then this newly-established conditioning could become a long-term cultural norm.
In today’s already stressful, busy, and tech-heavy world, we could all really benefit from interacting with each other more, tapping into our compassion and kindness, and acknowledging our shared humanity.
Seeing one another and being seen by others is one major aspect of feeling more part of a community.
So, let’s support ourselves and each other by consciously cultivating habits that help us feel more connected with one another.
Show the world your smile challenge…
Just give it a try.
Make a game out of sharing your smile with others today.
See if you can engage with three people in some friendly, non-confrontational way. Perhaps it’s someone you already know. Perhaps it’s a stranger. Can you share the love and acceptance that’s within you by showing the world your smile today?
What do you get from this? For one thing, you’ll be smiling your way to greater health and happiness. You’ll also be a beacon of hope and a shining example of a being who, despite all of the daily assaults on our consciousness from all sides, still chooses love.
You are a beautiful flower.
So, go Shine your Light! And when you do, PLEASE come back here and share your story in the comments below this article!
Much Love and Aloha,
Will and Susan
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