How Our Well-Being Is Inextricably Linked to That of Those Around Us
Sarah Rose Cavanagh on the Invisible Leashes that Connect Us All
One quiet day last December, I walked my dog Zaffy off-leash in the woods behind my house. As she bounded and bounced in the piercingly white snow, I was struck by the contrast between her and my first dog Nymeria. Not just in color—where Nym was so black she would appear in pictures less of a dog and more of a dog-shaped gap in space, Zaffy is the color of a perfectly toasted marshmallow—but also in temperament. Nym was a lovable hot mess, whereas Zaffy is gentle and adaptable.
While genetics surely also plays a role, I believe that these temperamental variations were to a large degree shaped by the powerful but intangible connections between people and the creatures that populate our lives. For part of their temperamental differences I attribute to the fact that Zaffy has been raised by me at middle age, a time when most the tempestuousness and uncertainties of my youth have simmered down into a pleasant brew of contentment and security. In contrast, I raised Nym in my late twenties, traveling a rocky transition from graduate school to the tenure track, and an even rockier transition from being childfree to parenting a preemie.
After being pampered rotten at the center of our worlds for the first few years of her life, Nym was abruptly abandoned for a full month while my spouse and I sheltered in the hospital with our new, tiny charge. A roster of friends and family made sure she got fed and out for walks, but the transition was surely jarring.
Nym was never quite the same after this period. She grew anxious when left alone for short periods of time. She would work out her anxieties by gnawing on baseboards, tearing at the arm cushions on chairs, chewing on her own limbs. She became territorial—many dogs she greeted happily, but unpredictably she’d decide a certain pup was a threat and turn from a gentle lab mix to a snarling dervish of teeth and snapping. It was terrifying.To support youth mental health, we need to provide security for the adults that surround them.
We withdrew from dog parks and warned people that they couldn’t bring their dogs with them when they visited. We brought her to an obedience class, where she thankfully didn’t chew on any other dogs but where the instructor observed that every time in class we approached another dog, I would immediately tense and tighten her leash. Through this physical tether I was telling Nym that she was under threat, and that worse, I might be under threat. That she needed to protect me.
This is how we fear.
My anxiety became her anxiety became my anxiety, as through this physical tether we shared our emotional and motivational states. But with our human social partners we also share these internal states through more subtle channels than a physical leash, depicting our emotions and intentions through the air between us through often-unconscious cues like pupil dilation, body tension, and vocal tone.
These cues not only communicate our internal states but also often recreate the same states in our social partners through the processes of emotional and social contagion. Whole brain systems are recruited to do this mirroring, to read these signs in our social partners and then create in ourselves a reflective state. To synchronize our experience of the world.
These synchronizations didn’t just occur with my furry daughter, but with my human one too. The first few nights home from the hospital, I laid flat in my bed and my infant laid in a lacy white bassinet next to me, alone, on her back. I stared at the dark ceiling listening to her too-early lungs labor to breathe, a snuffling snorting cacophony of struggle, and could not drift off to sleep for longer than a few minutes at a time.
Eventually, I lost my ability to stand it. Barricading both sides of my body with pillows, I rescued my babe from her frilly nest, unbuttoned a few buttons on my nightgown, and laid her on my bare chest. Nearly instantly she caught and found a rhythm to her breathing, which was the rhythm of my breathing, our inflows and outflows synchronizing in waves.
This is how we breathe.
We may even convey some information about our emotional and motivational states to each other through the release of chemosignals into the air, like pheromones. Scientists have collected sweat samples from participants watching scary or disgusting videos, or doing activities like cliff diving, and then had other, unwitting participants smell them while engaging in a variety of tasks.
The data indicated that the smellers adopted subtle variations of facial expressions and behaviors (e.g., eye scanning of the environment) consistent with the emotional state of the sweat they were smelling. What’s really wild though is that this research—both the chemosignals research and research on more conventional ways of conveying emotions like facial expressions and gestures—indicates that it is not that Person A feels an emotion, Person B detects that emotion and is influenced by the detection.
It isn’t: “Sarah is sad, that’s sad, perhaps I should be sad about this too.” As positive psychologist Barbara Fredrickson once said at a conference, “It isn’t that your emotions affect mine. Emotions are not bounded by skin. We are sharing the emotion.” Rather, the emotion is contagious, it is recreated in the second partner unconsciously and without volition.
So many of these invisible leashes that connect us are biological in nature. Consider physical attraction. When I am attracted to you, brain regions involved in physical arousal come online and have cascading effects on my body that are detectable to you. My pupils widen, my skin flushes, I lean forward, I begin unconsciously fidgeting with my hair. My eyes, my skin, my hands—through their connections with my brain—are trying to communicate to you something about the physical state of my body and how I would like to use it.
Over the years as my daughter got older and more independent, she learned to breathe and sleep on her own but experienced cycles where she would have long positive spells interrupted by sudden spells of outbursts and trouble controlling her behavior at school. One such peak of externalizing behavior occurred during a period of my life where I was losing a dear friend to breast cancer and dealing with some other tangles in my personal life.
During this difficult period both my daughter and I were wound tight, our winding occasionally unspooling in different maladaptive ways. But whose problems launched first? Were her struggles one more stressor in this difficult period of my life, or (my heart trembles at the thought) were my tensions infecting her carefree childhood? I couldn’t be sure. But both of our troubles subsided around the same time—they bloomed and then faded together.
Now that my daughter is an adolescent, I can see smaller reverberations of these cycles and synchrony that travel predictable patterns of our shared menstrual cycles, smaller storms that wax and wane with the moon, and also too longer cycles that travel the rollercoaster of my semesters. Somehow my teen is always the most oppositional and challenging during midterms and right before finals—or is she?
Is it not my own stresses accumulating and shortening the leash of my temper, my willingness to tolerate small barbs, the million little unconscious inflections of tone and body language and facial expression through which I communicate either stressed impatience or relaxed playfulness?
This is how we stress.
As the years passed and I realized how closely my child and my emotions and stress responses were woven—realized this on both a scientific level and one of lived experience—I began to in part modulate my own reactions around her out of a sense of love and of responsibility. Halfway through the tenure track I realized that since high school I had deprived myself of sleep in order to chase my ambitions, and that lack of sleep had cascading impacts on my temper and health and capacity for joy. I started going to bed earlier.
I realized it was a fool’s errand trying to chase a research career with a heavy teaching load and without any graduate students or postdocs, so I threw myself instead into my teaching and my writing. I did some pruning of the personal tangles that had possibly made our experiences of her young years difficult.
For as my daughter enters these last years at home with me, I want to model for her a life well-lived, one that doesn’t allow a myriad of external pressures flatten one into compliance, burn out one’s edges to a crisp. For as the wonderful Anne Dillard once wrote, “How we spend our days is how we spend our lives.” I feel confident that I owe it to my daughter to do so, that I need to be healthier and happier not so much for me (why it is easier to do it for her than for me might be another essay) but also for her.
This is how we live.
Perhaps part of this journey I traveled from anxious mess to assured calm is sourced in the combined wisdom of aging and scientific insight.
But like Zaffy (who, let’s be honest, probably lacks both wisdom and scientific insight) I can’t help but wonder whether most of my recent equanimity is the result of the security of my older, privileged life. I have a secure job. I no longer dread visiting the dentist or the car mechanic for want of money in the bank to cover the resulting bills. I can buy nice wine and as many novels as I want and spend time by the sea. I have supportive friends. I am (currently) healthy. I have all of the security benefits associated with being a married middle-upper-class white woman of a certain age.
We are in the midst of a youth mental health crisis. Daily we are buffeted by news of elevated rates of self-harm and suicidality in teens, medical society declarations that the well-being of our youngest generations are in a literal state of emergency. In all the debates about how to respond—reduce academic pressure, introduce wellness classes, ban their smartphones—we often neglect a more powerful move. To support youth mental health, we need to provide security for the adults that surround them. To extend the security benefits people like me enjoy for reasons of accident of birth and fortunate circumstances. To reknit a safety net. For youth to aspire to good mental health, they need to see models of good mental health around them.
Back in the woods, Zaffy has found something disgusting to gleefully roll in, her tail wagging, her vulnerable belly lifted to the blue skies, not a care in the world.
I can’t know whether Nym was predisposed to anxiety, whether Zaffy just won the genetic lottery and got all of the goofy, friendly dog genes. But it seems to me that Zaffy’s temperament is also partially due to being born into a household surrounded by contented people, with needs that are always met and rhythms that are predictable and safe, and in that security has expressed her full, best self.
For we are intimately connected. We do not just influence each other, we quite literally are each other.
Bounded only by skin.
Excerpted from Mind Over Monsters: Supporting Youth Mental Health with Compassionate Challenge by Sarah Rose Cavanagh. Copyright © 2023. Available from Beacon Press.