Resolve to connect with others more

Editor’s Note: MAPP, Mobilizing for Action through- Planning & Partnerships, is a local coalition that aims to use and build upon our strengths to improve our individual, family and community health. Health is defined broadly to include cultural, economic, educational, environmental, mental, physical and spiritual health.

Tis the season of resolutions. I always hate to see how people start off with such positivity and idealism, plan to be stronger and healthier, and so often end up with that horrible stain of failure and resignation. Every year people fail to stop smoking. Fail to do enough exercise. Fail to lose weight. Then out come the excuses.

But I would like to throw an idea out there. What if no excuse was necessary? What if we stopped punishing ourselves and instead looked to real solutions? Real solutions that lie in understanding brain science and human behavior?

In the 1990s there was a study of more than 17,000 people done by Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control that looked at how intense trauma and toxic stress during childhood leads to health problems as adults. Known as the “ACEs Study” (Adverse Childhood Experiences), it has become a defining study on how health professionals see individual health risk. We can easily imagine that having a lot of ACEs increases the likelihood of doing drugs, smoking, drinking and doing all those things that lead to health problems. Bad behavior goes along with a bad childhood, right?

But one interesting part of the ACEs Study is that the majority of the participants were white and college educated. We can’t stereotype that this applies to drug-ridden alleyways, we are talking about middle class Main Street.

Another interesting fact revealed in this study was that ACEs led to more than just addictive or bad behavior. In this huge group of more than 17,000 people it became quite apparent that there was a relationship between the number of ACEs a person had and their likelihood of having serious health problems that would otherwise seem unrelated, like heart disease and cancer.

Guess what the two leading causes of death are on the southern Kenai Peninsula? Heart disease and cancer. Just sayin’.

The ACEs Study reliably showed for the first time the effects of toxic stress at a young age on the life-long biology of a person. It also showed how common it is in our communities to experience trauma like physical, mental or sexual abuse, neglect, or parents in prison, abused or on drugs. One out of every eight people in the study had four or more ACEs.

Thanks to the ACEs Study there is a paradigm shift happening in the way people see others who are dealing with health issues, whether it’s asthma or addiction or obesity. Not only does this shift lead to more effective health care, it leads to a more sympathetic look at the individual. It takes away stereotypes of being bad, lazy or weak and replaces them with a new level of understanding.

So don’t beat yourself up or criticize anyone else about not meeting their New Year’s resolution. There could be a lot more under the surface than we are unaware of.

So what would be an answer to all this gloomy news? That we can combat this issue.

Humans are social creatures. The secret to being healthy and strong isn’t doing things on your own, it’s doing things with others. Rather than making a resolution to have a strong and healthy body by going jogging every day (and then beating yourself up when you don’t do it), try making a resolution to meet a friend at the gym instead.

Connection to others is a desire that our biology craves. Eating with others in a social setting makes us digest our food better. Kids who have more interactions with adults they trust are less likely to engage in risky behaviors. These are resiliency factors.

Connecting socially actually makes us more resilient biologically. It’s not about being socially popular, it’s simply about making meaningful connections to others that will reverse our physical body reactions of fear to ones of comfort.

We have long held the belief that health was an individual issue, but we are now learning how far that is from the truth. Our health is completely tied to our history, to our feelings of safety, and to our sense of belonging. That is why Thriving Thursdays at SVT Health and Wellness this week will have a class with Bob Bornt on Addressing Adverse Childhood Experiences through Resilience Games.

So instead of making a dreary resolution that may leave you beating yourself up, make a resolution this year to be stronger and more resilient by connecting more with someone you love or even someone you know who could use more connection. You, and our whole community, will be healthier for it.

Kyra Wagner is the coordinator of Sustainable Homer and a member of the MAPP steering committee, among many other things.