How to use social engagement to improve mental wellbeing

How to use social engagement to improve mental wellbeing

Posted: Mon 17th Jan 2022

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‘If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it’ is especially true for mental health. We quantify mental health, opening a window into your workforce’s wellbeing before supplying recommendations and professional support to help you proactively improve your mental fitness.

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The social engagement system

Most people are familiar with the dual stress model of an individual being in either a ‘restful safe’ state, or a ‘heightened fight-or-flight’ state. But neuroscience is revealing a more complex aspect of our autonomic nervous system called the social engagement system.

This is responsible for calming us enough to socially engage and connect with others; to put a ‘brake on’ and be intimate. This can really help our understanding of why other people are so good for us and why being alone damages our mental health.

But first, what sort of social support is good support? We all know bad relationships aren’t good for us, so let’s be a little clearer on what sort of behaviour is the right and helpful kind of support.

Types of social support

The following types of social support are the most helpful in times of stress:


Relationships that communicate caring and that are empathic and validate the other’s words, feelings and actions. This lets other people know they are valued and affirms their worth.


Supportive relationships are also the ones that facilitate:

  • adaptive coping around life’s problems

  • sharing advice and information

  • being willing to give the time to sit and help work a problem out


Supporting through giving tangible resources is a very practical form of support. This can include material or financial support, but importantly also the giving of time and action, such as cooking a meal for someone struggling or looking after their children.

Belonging to a community, volunteering, or being involved in social leisure groups, provides a broader support network and a sense of shared values and meaning.

The biology of social support (stick with it, it’s worth it!)

All these socially supportive behaviours come out of kindness and compassion towards others and create changes in our brains and nervous system.

They stimulate the release of the feel good bonding hormone oxytocin, and activate the rest-and-digest, feed-and-breed part of our nervous system, the vagus nerve. This is otherwise known as the social engagement system (more technically, the front part of our tenth cranial nerve, the ventral vagal branch of the parasympathetic nervous system!).

This is why we feel good when we connect in person with partners, family and friends. This nerve wanders widely through our body, relaxing our gut, slowing our heartbeat and breathing. It lowers blood pressure as blood reaches all parts of our body, including our digestive system, skin and all internal organs.

This is the exact opposite of the fight-or-flight mode that mobilises us into action. Relaxed breathing exercises are so helpful because they both stimulate and regulate this social engagement system, switching down the stress.

The back part of the vagus nerve is the ancient dorsal vagal nerve that mammals inherited from reptiles. This response immobilises us and allows us to freeze or feign death. It’s this response that engages when we’re trapped in a dangerous situation, making us feel numb, dissociated and traumatised.

Apart from touch, all our other senses of sight, sound, taste and smell are in our head and controlled by our cranial nerves. Their function is to help us find food and eat it, but also to manage our facial expressions and body state to allow close interactions.

Five of these cranial nerves, including the vagus nerve, gather information from our visceral organs, checking if we’re safe or in danger, or if there’s an imbalance internally. If we’re safe, these nerves facilitate the desirable state of social engagement and, in this relaxed state, we naturally build connection. More importantly, this is the state of contentment or even happiness that we seek in our lives.

The Goldilocks analogy

This is a great way to understand the quality of the tone of our body in the three autonomic nervous system states:

  • ‘Too hard or hot’ in the stressed fight-or-flight mode sympathetic state

  • ‘Too soft or cold’ in the shut-down freeze state of dorsal vagal nerve activation

  • ‘Just right’ in the state of social engagement of ventral vagal activation

When we feel ‘just right’ and in a socially engaged mode, it’s easy for other people to understand our behaviour and what we do makes sense to them. However, sometimes we drop into a state of stress and it becomes harder for others to understand our values, motivation and behaviour.

Our actions can seem irrational and destructive, making life difficult for those around us. Being able to return to the ‘just right’ state is at the heart of resilience, allowing us to manage our emotions and regulate our body and mind with other people.

Giving and receiving social support helps us feel safe in our relationships and enter into this state automatically. But if we’re out of practice or have avoided social situations for some time, we may need to understand and tune, or tone, our ventral vagus nerve in order to re-engage in social relationships.

How to tone and stimulate your own social engagement system

Try the following suggestions to regulate your inner physiology to facilitate engagement. But also get out and about with other people when you can, so this becomes a mutually beneficial process between your inner and outer worlds.

  • Practice breathing exercises at least four times a day. If in doubt, breathe out! Breathing to stimulate the vagus nerve requires our out-breath to be longer than our in-breath.

  • Attend to your attention skills: Learn to focus your attention on your breathing, your body, your thoughts and your emotional experience. This is a mindfulness practice that you can learn more about using the 87% app (download at the App Store or via Google Play), listening to guided audio, or visiting a mindfulness website.

  • Use massage: Check your muscle tone – are you too hard, too soft or just right? Identify what state you might be in by checking how tight your shoulders, your neck or your jaw are, and use massage to release this tension.

  • Try mindful movement: Learn to focus on sensing your external environment through using movement mindfully. Sense your body and what is around you. Walking, yoga or tai chi are excellent in this regard.

  • Singing and chanting activates the vagus nerve, so sing out loud in the shower or wherever you fancy.

  • Practice kindness and compassion towards others and also towards yourself. Commit to doing actions each day to follow this through.

  • Eat a balanced diet with plenty of fibre and probiotics. Bitter tasting foods are also known to stimulate this nerve.

  • Develop your connection to your senses. Build a collection of items that focus your senses, like pleasant smells, textured items and keep a supply of intensely flavoured foods to hand.

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