Why In-Person Contact is Essential for Mental Health and Anxiety

by Kristen McElveen, ND

photo credit: Kristen McElveen, ND

photo credit: Kristen McElveen, ND

Recently, I decided to take a trip up the Hudson River Valley to have lunch with a friend whom I hadn’t seen in years. It had been a particularly emotional time for me. Politically, things are becoming more exhausting, making all other stressors even more raw. Professionally, I am transitioning careers, which is both exciting and terrifying. Personally, I had just gone through a few big life changes and am also going through a powerful heartbreak, which had taken me completely by surprise, since we hadn’t even really started yet. So for this one day, all I wanted to do was step away from the city and enjoy the beautiful weather, take a long drive, see the changing leaves, the river, some lumpy pumpkins, eat a few (dozen) cider donuts and see a friend.

I pulled up to the restaurant we were meeting at and was excited to see my friend. It was a beautiful spot on a beautiful day. I was hungry. We hugged when we saw each other. It felt nice. I felt a pang, but I ignored it. “Not today, mushy me,” I said to myself.

But the echo of kind, human contact reverberated into the chasm of despair from the last two months and it shook me. I wasn’t prepared for what came next. No one ever is.

We ordered our lunch, started talking about life in general, things we hadn’t already gleaned from each other’s social media and our general catching up.

The waitress brought our food and suddenly the juicy burger I had ordered and was famished for looked up at me as if it were all of my hopes and dreams: medium-rare; dead, but still bleeding.

My gut did a somersault. My eyes welled up with tears. “Not now,” I thought.

I talked through it, trying to ignore it and continue our conversation and then it happened. She saw my tears and reached out her hand to mine to comfort me, like any empathetic human, like any mother, like any friend. But something was different. It was like her hand pushed a release button on my floodgates and suddenly, all of the feelings were given permission to be released and without notice.

I could feel the tears streaming down my face before I even realized I was actually doing this. I was actually crying in front of a friend I hadn’t seen in years. A 40 year-old woman, crying in public, not just a little bit, a lot. Shoulders-shaking, bench-wobbling, full-body crying. I couldn’t stop it. The more I tried to stop it, the more my panic increased. So now, not only was I sobbing uncontrollably, but I was shaking uncontrollably and in a full-blown panic attack.

I closed my eyes. I see things differently than many, so visually, I was flipping through the chemical compounds of the things that were happening inside my own body. I was seeing the literal waves of cortisol, norepinephrine and glutamate crashing over my hypersensitive neurons and trying to assess the chemical breakdown of my panic. I started making cross-sections of my own amygdala trying to see where the short circuit was occurring, while franticly trying to deep breathe and both will energetically and visualize chemically the switch from my own sympathetic (fight-or-flight) response back into my parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) neurological state.

I am an expert in how the human body functions. Surely I can simply apply that to myself and fix it, quickly, before my burger gets cold.

Except, anxiety doesn’t care how many degrees you have. Or how well you can visualize chemical reactions in real time like it’s a game of Tetris. Or how fast you flip through your encyclopedia brain and go through all of the checklists of things that have been scientifically proven to help.

The table next to us quieted down. The waitress brought the bill. I was planning to pay for the lunch anyway, but especially now, it was the least I could do.

The shame and embarrassment and vulnerability of it all was overwhelming, but you know what? My friend didn’t even blink. She never once made me feel embarrassed or ashamed. She didn’t excuse herself to go to the restroom or even look at her phone. The shame was all my own doing. I was confused as to why this was all happening now. Why, on my planned “fun day,” would this all bubble up and destroy everything?

Because anxiety, that’s why.

Emotions don’t follow plans, they react. When you suppress or don’t acknowledge or aren’t done feeling your emotions when they need you, they will remind you that they will be felt, even if it’s during a random, happy moment.

I apologized for the thirtieth time and we walked to the parking lot, talked a bit more, hugged and parted. I was still in a daze as to what had just happened, so I drove to a carwash I saw on my way there and gave my car a much-needed wash while I collected my thoughts.

Next on my list was to go to Walkway Over the Hudson, which is an old railroad that is now…you guessed it…a walkway over the Hudson River just up from the Mid-Hudson Bridge and Poughkeepsie waterfront. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen once I got there. I’m terrified of bridges and of heights, but for some reason, I felt like it was time to overcome fear, especially after the emotional panic attack I had just experienced. If I can’t walk it, I won’t, but I at least have to try. I was drawn to it and I had to see why.

I arrived at the parking lot and walked up to the bridge and back to my car three times. It was sunny and cooler, but not cold, about 65 degrees, but to me, I felt like I was in Antarctica. I already had an undershirt and thick flannel shirt on, so I added a fleece sweatshirt and wool hat. My teeth stopped chattering but I was still shaking.

I took a few steps, high over the water. I looked ahead to see the walkway, then back down. I looked at all the seemingly happy and perfectly well-adjusted people walking, joyously over the bridge with friends and their dogs.

I gripped the railing. I felt dizzy and nauseated. Tears were still falling and drying on my cheeks in the wind. I was so cold. I was also mad at myself for not being able to eat much of that burger because low blood sugar will only make everything worse.

Then, I took a breath and thought of gratitude. I thought about how grateful I am that even though I feel like I’m dying right now, it’s just panic and I’m not really dying. I have had panic attacks for over ten years now and I have survived every single one. I am strong. My body is in decent health. I can feel the sun on my face. I can smell the crisp, Fall air. I can hear the train horn in the distance. I can hear and see the love between people walking on the bridge. People holding hands, people patting each other on the back with congratulations, people consoling each other during a rough day. I took a few steps with each thing I could possibly think of to feel grateful for. Soon, I was able to let go of the railing. Then finally, walk at a normal pace.

Deep breaths and baby steps. Love was all around. Gratitude was all around. I was warm again.

I looked out over the water and I was at the halfway point, right at the flag. I made it! But also, I needed to sit down. I was sweating. What kind of person wears 3 layers and a wool hat in sunny, almost-70-degree weather?

It hit me all at once…the power of human contact is just as important as all of the other self-care we need to maintain healthy mental/emotional and physical lives. As a doctor, I always emphasized that. Yet, I realized that even though I walk around New York City with tons of people everyday and interact with friends and family daily online or via text, I hadn’t actually been face-to-face with someone familiar, much less a friend, in over a month.

Over a month.

It seems so silly, but when my friend looked me in the eyes as we spoke, when we were observing each other’s body language and interpreting our facial expressions and hand movements, it was a whole other level of human interaction that could never be transmitted over a screen. I hadn’t experienced that in over a month, during a very emotional time for me, so what seemed like a simple comfort from a friend, was the most powerful, healing experience I’d felt in a long time.

We think technology has made it easier to stay in touch, and in many ways it has. It is still powerful to send a heart emoji when you’re thinking of someone. But it doesn’t compare to eye contact and a hand on your shoulder.

Even in medical school, one of the reasons I wanted to change the system was because doctors didn’t even touch patients anymore. Medical assistants and nurses took over vitals and physical exams and the doctor would just come in for five minutes, review everything the patient just said to the nurse, nod and prescribe. The more I practiced medicine, the more confused I got that any doctor felt they could properly evaluate much less diagnose or treat someone without touching them. It’s just as important as medicine. It is medicine.

Even knowing this, even being as self-aware as I felt I was, it still took me by surprise that this day went the way it did. So it made me want to share it. To help anyone who has ever felt this way to know you aren’t alone, because I know for damn sure I’m not the only one this has happened to.

I also want to make a plea to all adults, especially women – the mothers, the caretakers, the warriors, the empaths, the carriers of all of the weight – to please, please, please make time for adult, human, in-person connection.

It is as important as your alone time.

It is as important as meditation, nutrition, exercise and any other form of self-care that you practice.

Mental health is absolutely as important as physical health and they affect each other in so many ways. I truly believe that we have not outgrown the playdate. We need it now, more than ever.