The term was coined by author Dan Buettner after research revealed five hotspots around the globe where people tended to live demonstrably longer lives: Okinawa in Japan, Sardinia in Italy, Nicoya in Costa Rica, Icaria in Greece, and Loma Linda in the US.
The long, healthy lives led by people living in these communities – all five places have high concentrations of people living beyond 100 – have been put down to familiar themes such as moderate physical activity and a healthy diet, but researchers have also singled out the more difficult-to-pin-down concepts of purpose, family and social engagement as key elements.
For those living with social anxiety or the day-to-day issues of poor mental health, employing social skills and mixing in the community can be a challenge – but, as the “blue zone” research reveals, the benefits of tackling those challenges head-on can be huge.
2014 studies at the University of Chicago led by John Cacioppo found that extreme loneliness had twice the impact as obesity on the likelihood of a person’s changes of premature death, and nearly as much impact as disadvantaged socioeconomic status. In other words, cutting yourself off from society can seriously damage your health.
Lonely people, studies found, experienced poor sleep patterns, high blood pressure, increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol, increased depression and “lower overall subjective well-being”.
Cacioppo’s research broke down the main features of social connectedness into three levels for people to work on:
- Collective connectedness: feeling part of a group.
- Relational connectedness: having mutually rewarding face-to-face contacts.
- Intimate connectedness: having someone special close to you.
These levels show that it’s not necessarily being physically cut off from society that is the issue here – more that it is the emotion of loneliness that can be harmful. For example, living in a remote part of the world doesn’t mean you are necessarily lonely – not if you feel you are part of a group or have people in your life who you find special.
Social anxiety can lead people not just to ignore these three levels of connectedness but to specifically avoid them.
And this avoidance can start that all-too familiar concept of a self-feeding cycle which can be a major feature of social anxiety:
- By withdrawing from a healthy, supportive community, we lose the key elements of having people around to help with problems or to ask for help.
- By missing out on that element of social support, we lose that sense that we can trust others and offer/seek friendship and emotional support.
- By missing out on that emotional support, we tend to withdraw further from our community and focus more on our personal anxiety.
By breaking this cycle at any stage and seeking social connections or working on social skills – either face-to-face, or through online social networks, or by seeking professional help – will therefore not only help tackle anxiety, but also help with physical health and well-being.
In his book, Sound Mind, Sound Body, leading Stanford researcher Dr Kenneth Peletier even went so far as to say a sense of connection to society was a basic human need “as basic as food and shelter”.
“It is clear that even the most dogmatic fixation on the traditional risk factors of disease is futile without looking beyond out biological boundaries and considering the quality of our connections to other people,” he writes.
It’s quite clear that, even if we can’t turn New Zealand into a “blue zone”, we can certainly help tackle “the blues” by working on how we interact socially with one another.
Robert Street Clinic has a wide range of psychotherapists, psychiatrists and psychologists who can work with you if you are experiencing any of the issues and challenges thrown up by social anxiety. For more information, call us on 09 973 5950, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or message us via the website.