By Dr. Eddie Ramirez, MD
The conclusion of a 3-part series adapted from a speech delivered on December 29, 2018, in Loma Linda, CA. Read part 1 here. Read part 2 here.
Relationships, Neuroplasticity and Health
Healthy association will create positive neuroplasticity that will translate to a healthy body system, while loneliness and lack of association will bring about depression, and eventually negative neuroplasticity. We can take a cue from a scripture in the Holy Bible in Proverbs 17:22. Loneliness, isolation and lack of association causes an increase in stress hormones, which negatively affect your metabolism, causing your health to take a hit. For instance, unhappy marriages have been documented to negatively affect heart health, proving to have the same negative implication that isolation has on the heart. Intimacy means being open, being vulnerable, and having the ability to connect with others.
Intimacy means being open, being vulnerable, and having the ability to connect with others.
C.S. Lewis, a Christian writer wrote an interesting poem that shows the link between relationship, neuroplasticity and health. A cartoon that explained the story of the poem was created. The cartoon showed a lady who was in a relationship with a man. The man began to behave in a mean and unpleasant way which strained their relationship and eventually ended it. This experience broke the heart of the lady. As a result she took her heart and locked it in a box, away from where the outside world could hurt it again. “Never again is this going to happen to me“, she said. As time passed, she started to notice that contrary to her opinion, people in relationships were having a better time since they had at least someone to share their problems with. One day, she came across a young man who also had an unpleasant past. Even though the man had gotten his heart broken in the past, he was still looking for love and so this lady decides to give him a chance. As the man gets closer to her, he notices the box which she has locked up and inquires about what is inside. After much thought, she decides to throw the man the key to the box, which he successfully opens. The lady’s broken and hurt heart that had been locked away was eventually healed when the box was opened. The lady was able to love again. C.S. Lewis then closed the poem by saying “to love at all is to be vulnerable”.
The full version of this quote, taken from Lewis’s book, The Four Loves, reads:
“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket — safe, dark, motionless, airless — it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside of Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.”
The people you commune and associate with are a vital pointer in developing your neuroplasticity. Your associations can shape your mind, influence your behavior, and in eventuality impact your decisions. This can be proven by a study that was done in Canada. The study was done to show the effect of communal relationship on our neuroplasticity. Researchers noticed that there were some small communities in unpopular regions of Canada, in which they were experiencing a very high suicide rate. The affected population was mainly the young people living in those communities. The researchers then embarked on private interviews of some of the young people in the communities. What they discovered was that loneliness and depression was eating them up. They had no expectation whatsoever for the future, and this was what was prompting them to take their own lives. The researchers compared those high suicide communities with other similarly small communities without a high suicide rate. Their young people had a completely different attitude to life. They looked forward to the future with a huge sense of anticipation and felt like they were a part of their community. They even got involved in governing the affairs of their community. The contrasting situation of these communities buttresses this wise saying, “the opposite of addiction is not sobriety, but rather connection”. This is why it is important to have places that can help provide a sense of community and belonging to people that are struggling with loneliness and depression. People need that sense of community to feel fulfilled.
The opposite of addiction is not sobriety, but rather connection.
Comprehensive research has shown that lonely people have a high probability of experiencing early death. Like an article in the New York Times states, “loneliness can be deadly for elders, but friends are the antidote”. This doesn’t apply only to elders, it also applies to middle aged and young people. The epidemic of loneliness is tremendous in countries like England and Australia. In fact, this has prompted the government of England to appoint a minister of loneliness. Different inventions are also being made just to help solve the problem of loneliness. In Japan they invented a creepy hologram that simulates the activities of a friend and sends them your messages of friendship. This makeshift solution only points out the importance of a real friend who you can interact and connect with, rather than a hologram. A healthy relationship will help create positive neuroplasticity, while isolation feeds negative neuroplasticity.
Religion and Therapy
Initially, psychology was very uptight about spirituality and the benefit of a religious environment. Today however, scientific literature supports the fact that when you combine the spiritual factor with therapy, it produces better results. In fact, one of the pioneers of modern cognitive behavioral therapy, who had said that religious belief was synonymous to emotional disturbance, wrote years later in a secular Journal, “I think I can safely say that the Christians Bible self-help book has probably enabled more people to make more extensive and intensive personality and behavioral changes than all professional therapists combined’”. Even though he was not a believer, this was the impression he got as he was treating those patients day by day. What he meant was that the Bible has more power to transform lives than all the therapists combined.
A big mistake churches make is separating the older and younger people in church. The church as a place provides a location where people can come together to build a positive atmosphere. Having a combination of older and younger people together in the same place further bodes well in the creation of a positive environment. Young people have the energy, while the older people have wisdom which they have accumulated through their mistakes and experiences. When you put them together, you create a good social network. Interesting studies also back up this fact that having a good social network around you will reduce the probability of you falling sick.
It’s disheartening that loneliness is becoming a matter of increasing concern. This is partly due to the fact that religious institutions are increasingly being swept aside. Nowadays, our life revolves around our work. We have little or no time for connections, no time for friends, no time for social relationships, and this is slowly but subtly affecting us negatively. In a very fascinating study titled “Religious attendance more cost effective than Lipitor“, they were examining whether attending a church is a more economic and cost effective alternative than taking statins for the treatment of heart disease. This study was published in a secular Journal, “The Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine“.
If you study the world map carefully, you will discover that the countries that were built on the Protestant principles are the most prosperous countries of planet earth. Unfortunately, most of those countries have been taken over by secularism and postmodernism. If you check the suicidal rates in those countries, you will find out that those countries have one of the highest rates of suicide. Postmodernism has left many of those countries empty, and their young people are falling prey to suicidal thoughts. People in those countries will tell you spirituality doesn’t work there. The fact that they are relegating the impact the church can have on neuroplasticity and health (physical and mental wellness) is largely responsible for the rampant suicides in those countries. In those places around the world where loneliness is present, we already have the solution in our hands.
There’s the story of two shoe sellers who were sent to an island. The first person arrived on that island to sell shoes, but he was disappointed when he discovered that nobody on that island put shoes on. So, he sent a Telegraph immediately saying his journey was a failure, he was in the wrong place since nobody there used shoes, and that he wanted his ticket back home. However, the second seller saw things differently. He felt it was a fantastic market opportunity since nobody had shoes, he saw an opportunity to make a lot of money there. Both sellers had their market staring right at them, but only one of them made sales because of his ability to identify a solution. People are hungry for that sense of security, association and community that the church is able to provide, and it is sad that this fact is usually downplayed.
In closing, there is an article from a secular newspaper from England titled “I am an atheist who goes to church, and here is why you should too“. In the article, the author (an atheist) talked about how when he traveled around England, he couldn’t stop noticing the beautiful churches all over the country. He was always curious about what they did there, and why some people still went there. Out of curiosity, he started going to a church and discovered that he actually liked it. He enjoyed everything that was served in the church, the music, fellowship between people, the message that was being preached, and the atmosphere of love and communion. After some time, he began to take his son along with him.
Published in literature is the fact that those who participate in church sponsored activities have less stress about finances, health, and daily concerns compared to those people that don’t participate in religious activities. This fact was further backed up by information published in the Journal of Psychiatry which stated that “those people who attend religious services, pray, or read their Bible regularly have lower blood pressure when compared with those that don’t”. Also published in the Journal of Public Health is research supporting that those people who attend religious services have less probability of dying early. This same fact was still backed up by another publication in the Journal of Psychiatry and Medicine. It says that people who attend religious services have a much better immunity than those that don’t, protecting you against not only diseases such as flu and so forth but also against diseases like cancers. A religious environment will most likely provide you with healthy relationships, thereby reducing the tendency to commit suicide and use addictive substances. This fact has been buttressed by a publication in the Journal of Religion and Clinical Practice which says, “people who have that spiritual factor in their lives are less likely to commit suicide, less likely to use alcohol or drugs, engage in less criminal behavior, have fewer divorces and higher marital satisfaction”.
The facts published in these articles represent what almost everyone desires. This is exactly what spirituality brings to the table as you begin to experience transformation in the brain through neuroplasticity. In closing, King David tells us in Psalm 77 that he was a human being, troubled just like you and I. Being a troubled person and resorting to complaining won’t solve your problems, rather it will make matters worse and you eventually start infecting those around you with your trouble. The psalmist said he refused comfort and started questioning God. He was overwhelmed and alone, and finally he hit rock bottom. He was intensely lonely. However, it is important to notice what happens to David when he changed his focus and started to focus on the Creator (God) instead of himself and his troubles. Then the psalmist changed his approach. He started to bring to his remembrance God’s work and His wonders. He started to meditate on God’s work, talking about His wonderful doings, focusing on positive neuroplasticity. Finally, the psalmist closes by saying “I am not troubled anymore“. He experienced a transformation. This is also very evident in clinical practice. You see a patient that is lonely by himself in his room, and he just starts to think about his disease. Such a patient doesn’t get better, he actually gets worse as he starts thinking just about himself. But if the patient changes the focus of his thoughts, transformation takes place inside of him through neuroplasticity. The brain has amazing ability to change and never forget that you hold the keys to that change.