Living Disconnected


Excerpted from Nick Arnett’s upcoming book, “Stress Into Strength: Resilience Routines for Warriors, Wimps and Everybody in Between.”

Don’t beat yourself up for feeling stressed, anxious, and not resilient enough – you are far from alone. Although we are living in the most technologically connected culture that has ever existed, many of us are sorely lacking habits that address isolation, inactivity, and meaninglessness. Many are so disconnected from stress recovery that they don’t even know what is missing. They just know they are anxious and saddest of all, lonely — some profoundly so.

An astonishing 40 percent of American adults report feeling lonely. Millions of people, especially men, have zero close friends. Loneliness rates have doubled since the 1980s. Ask a therapist what problems walk into their offices each day and you will hear that loneliness and anxiety top the list, by far.

Loneliness is lethal. Researchers have found that it dramatically raises heart disease and stroke rates, increasing your risk of early death by 30 percent, taking an average of 10 years off your lifespan. It is also expensive – the U.S. government spends an estimated $6.7 billion annually to address social isolation in older adults. Vivek Murthy, the former U.S. Surgeon General, says that the most concerning health issue in the United States is not cancer, heart disease or obesity. It is isolation.

Our disconnection is not just social. We have also abandoned routines for physical and spiritual exercise and recovery. Compared with our predecessors, we work out less, eat worse, get less sleep, gain more debt, pay to store more stuff, and generate more trash. We are more cynical, less inspired, and motivated. We skip reassuring rituals and “go it alone” rather than be mentored or mentoring, while allowing money and power to trump morality.

Trapped in the perpetual stress of fearing stress, while disconnected from sources of recovery, we become increasingly reluctant to take on the challenges that we need to stay strong, grow and bounce back after adversity.

Every one of the social and psychological causes of depression and anxiety… has something in common. They are all forms of disconnection. They are all ways in which we have been cut off from something we innately need but seem to have lost along the way

Johann Hari

We tolerate disconnection because it can yield a certain success – for a while. Compromising social and family life, workouts, and values, allows us to work long hours, make money and get promoted, gaining power and prestige. This doesn’t end well. Eventually, life presents difficulties that cannot be solved with money or power (although they enable formidable distractions).

Past generations had more stress recovery built into daily life. Shared meals, entertainment and work were the norm. Long commutes were impractical, schools and jobs were local, so people worked and went to school with friends and neighbors. Less automation and more expensive energy demanded more activity. Processed and junk food were less available. Churches and social clubs, now starving for members, were part of the majority’s lives, solidifying community connections.

Today, we have the most powerful information-sharing system in history, the Internet. However, our negative bias is at home there; most of what we share and read is shocking news, gossip, and posturing, poisonous to healthy relationships.

Research shows that the same content in an email and in in-person dialogue sounds less polite in the email.

Amit Sood

We face new threats – global terrorism, mass shootings, job insecurity, enormous debt, climate change. Institutions — political, religious, academic, media — have lost much of their trust and authority. Greed, extremism, and scandals have created a void of wisdom, meaning, values, morality, and purpose. Few cultural leaders have hesitated to capitalize on fear, amplifying our stress reactions and feeding the vicious cycle of disconnection.

Threatened by modern fears, adrift and uninspired, we naturally react with fight-or-flight. Some fight by trying to become more self-sufficient; these are the libertarians and “preppers,” expecting apocalypse. Others flee via distractions and indulgences to mask worries and helplessness; illness, addiction and bankruptcy too often result. As long as we keep fighting and fleeing, disconnection deepens.

We are not likely to forget that we sometimes must fear or distrust strangers. We need to know, thoroughly and intuitively, that although some people will neglect, reject, and hurt us, we are not alone. We need to care and be cared for.

We are unlikely to forget that the universe has diseases and dangers that can injure and kill us. We need to know, thoroughly and intuitively, that the physical world is our home, nourishing and sustaining us. We are creation’s beneficiaries and stewards.

Few of us will forget that we are far from perfect. We need to know, thoroughly and intuitively, that we are forgiven and accepted as we are, one body of humanity even as we are individuals.

More than we need reminders of what to fear, we need to give and receive reminders of gratitude and generosity. We need five or ten reminders of what’s good in life for every reminder of what’s not.

Deep disconnection – having little or no sense of belonging just as you are – makes isolation, physical pain and meaninglessness feel permanent or intolerable. Dysfunction and addictions follow.

In this environment, calls for “trigger warnings” (which research suggests don’t work) and bans on “micro-aggression” are not surprising. If you see stress as a problem to avoid, it makes sense to hold others responsible for causing it. However, your difficulty coping probably has far less to do with their behavior and is more the result of disconnection from sources of recovery, healing and growth.

A culture of avoiding stress weakens everyone. “Stress-free living” is an oxymoron. When we advocate the goal of eliminating stress, we should not be surprised at the rise in addictions, distractions and the ultimate “stress reduction” — suicide, which has risen 24 percent in the last five years.
Resilience routines are antidotes to fear-based thinking and acting because they nourish and strengthen us in body, mind, and spirit. They can help you heal from the past, cope with the present and prepare for a better future.

To thrive in the 21st century, we must be more intentional about connection and recovery from stress than our parents or grandparents. We need to discern what truly threatens us and what does not, replacing the vicious cycle of fear, distraction, and disconnection with a virtuous cycle of connection and recovery.

It would be unfair to make these observations without acknowledging that racism, discrimination, circumstances, and privilege result in uneven opportunities to make the kinds of connections that build resilience. If you are struggling for basic survival, resilience routines may seem out of reach. If you are working multiple jobs just to make enough to pay the rent, eating well, getting exercise, and getting enough sleep may be impossible. That’s realism. However, resilience also calls for optimism, to have faith that even though the way forward individually is bleak, great transformation happens when many of us take small steps forward. Learning resilience is subversive, ultimately destructive to organizations and institutions that misuse or abuse their constituents.