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Aging Action Initiative A Simple Act of Kindness and Caring  By Chrisula Asimos, PhD, CSA, suicidologist
Member, Marin Commission on Aging

With the holidays quickly approaching, it is a good time to reflect on current plans and relationships. We live in somewhat difficult and trying times, which can add more stress and burden to the holiday season. For some, the holidays bring up positive memories. For others, the holidays cast a dark shadow with feelings of sadness and despair.

I recently viewed a RetroReport documentary that highlighted a research study of a population of high-risk depressed and suicidal individuals. In the follow-up phase of the study, people who refused treatment were sent contact letters simply stating a message of caring and concern with no strings attached. That specific, consistent message sent over a period of time proved to have prevention value for depression and suicide.

Science has shown how social isolation is a risk for early death.The current challenge is how can we experience some solace and comfort by reaching out to others with a simple act of kindness and caring. Though the study took place in the 1970s, the lessons we take away are as apt today as they were then. There is measurable value in human contact, in expressing caring and concern. This means social contact in real time!

The immediacy of electronic media has persuaded us to buy into this particular delivery of social contact. Yet the number of people we feel close to appears to be shrinking with this type of social contact, which tends to offer only greater superficial feelings of self-worth.

For those prone to low self-esteem or feelings of loneliness, this media source of contact has not proven to positively improve those issues. There are a number of recent studies reporting on the positive effects of face-to-face and social contact in real time. Face-to-face contact has been identified as having physiological value as oxytoxin, a neuropeptide, is secreted into the bloodstream during meaningful relationships, triggering a euphoric-like feeling. In other words, the good feelings we have from the gathering times of the holidays are good for our mental health!

During the years I facilitated group therapy for depressed and suicidal individuals, I often related Schopenhauer’s Porcupine Dilemma to the dynamic interactions of humans: on a cold, wintry day, porcupines were looking to warm themselves so they hovered together, only to prick each other, move apart, and become cold again. They then found the optimal closeness that safely brought them warmth. May you also find optimal and safe closeness and warmth this holiday season.

Let us close out this year with an appreciation for the friendships and relationships we have. Let us remember to be kind to ourselves and those around us, to be mindful of our own and others’ needs for comfort and support, and to take time to replenish our inner resources and emotional energy required to be the gatekeepers, the responders, and the service providers.