Social Interaction: The Sandpaper That May Save Your Mental Health

Compassionate Love Blog: Displaying compassion for those who struggle with mental illness   (c)2017  Nancy Virden, Always the Fight Ministry

Sandpaper. That is what my mother called it when two people grow in maturity because of their interpersonal conflict.  “It’s like sandpaper,” she said. “People sand down each other’s rough edges.”

That does not sound pleasant. Conflict is no fun, and neither is swallowing one’s pride and learning to change. Bumping up against a differing point of view is not always awful though. Some lessons come gently, and like patting a wound with a cotton ball, we immediately appreciate the sensation. 

Take what I learn from my friend Emily.*  Somehow she manages to patiently ride out my storms without judgement or running away. She is honest and will tell me if what I am saying or doing is challenging her peace of mind. Although we have known each other for three decades, it was twelve years ago she came to visit me during my first psychiatric hospital stay and never left. 

My appreciation for Emily is profound. Better yet, she influences how I want to be. Her example is worth following. Lessons from Emily are not painful, yet without her my character would suffer a deficiency.     

My mother lived alone after my father left her for another woman after 24 years of marriage. Constant and horrible conflict between my parents never made anyone grow in maturity. They brought the worst out in each other. My mother never wanted to remarry because of her religious beliefs and the pain of her first try. 

It is interesting then that she promoted sandpapering. Her thoughtful reasoning came of loneliness. “As we get older, if we are alone we get weird. I don’t have anyone to give me a differing point of view.  Whatever is in my head seems true.”

Loneliness is its own head game. Acute and chronic loneliness does change a person in deep ways. Psychologist John Cacioppo* is an expert in the study of loneliness.  A series of his studies prove quite simply that not having  healthy social interaction makes us sick. Psychology Today* reports:

  • Perhaps most astonishing, in a survey he conducted, doctors  confided that they provide better or more complete medical care to patients who have supportive families and are not socially isolated.
  • Living alone increases the risk of suicide for young and old alike.
  • Lonely individuals report higher levels of perceived stress even when exposed to the same stressors as non-lonely people, and even when they are relaxing.
  • The social interaction lonely people do have are not as positive as those of other people, hence the relationships they have do not buffer them from stress as relationships normally do.
  • Loneliness raises levels of circulating stress hormones and levels of blood pressure. It undermines regulation of the circulatory system so that the heart muscle works harder and the blood vessels are subject to damage by blood flow turbulence.
  • Loneliness destroys the quality and efficiency of sleep, so that it is less restorative, both physically and psychologically. They wake up more at night and spend less time in bed actually sleeping than do the non-lonely.

Dr. Kimberly Dennis, Medical Director and CEO of Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center,  teaches that one of the most common predictors of or risk factors for relapse in eating disorder recovery is isolation. This is true of recovery after surgery, after a death, depression, and financial loss.  Any stressor is tougher to overcome when loneliness is a factor.  

This is one of many reasons it is unfair to accuse someone who struggles emotionally  with ‘playing the victim’ or character defect. We would do better to invite that person over, take them out, and show them they matter.

We all experience some loneliness from time to time. To the chronically lonely and isolated, I suggest nothing is worse than nothing. Let’s do something! Go out, call, email, text, talk to people at the store, attend church, take some classes, or join an area club.  Invite others to your home, teach a skill, lead a study on any topic, or have a potluck with neighbors.  If you need something, ask. Ask for transport, visits, or volunteers. Want to barter? Do it.  Call support centers. Do not wait for rescue – tell people precisely what you need. 

To the non-lonely, may I urge you to look beyond the norm. What is it you can do to reach out to a lonely person? It is good medicine for both of you.

The Psychology Today article ends with this sobering thought. “…we are built for social contact. There are serious—life-threatening—consequences when we don’t get enough. We can’t stay on track mentally. And we are compromised physically. Social skills are crucial for your health.”

Today’s Helpful Word

Proverbs 27:17 

“As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.”

NOTE: I am not a doctor or mental health professional. I speak only from personal experiences with and observations of mental illness. In no way is this website intended to substitute for professional mental health care.

If you are struggling emotionally today or feeling suicidal, or concerned about someone who is, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Hope and help is yours.

*not her real name

*John T. Cacioppo, Ph.D, is the Tiffany and Margaret Blake Distinguished Service Professor and Director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago

* Hara Estroff Marano. The Dangers of Loneliness. July 1, 2003 – last reviewed on June 9, 2016. Retrieved on May 20, 2017 from

sandpaper picture by MIMWICKETT on

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