Just over a year ago, my husband and I were initiating our move from Oregon to Ogden. Moving from a small community with outdoor recreation steps away from our home, we eagerly included this in our list of preferences for location. Neither of us thought to include any desirable neighbor characteristics on our list, but, as we’ve learned, this is very important to health.

In our adult life we’ve been blessed to have good neighbors. Upon moving into our home in Ogden, we were immediately welcomed by neighbors from all angles. It was a wonderful feeling.

One October day, everything shifted when we received an unknown written complaint on our front door, then another a few months later. The most difficult part of the communication was that the sender was not identified. We quickly sought the advice of neighbors we had developed relationships with, but none could offer a lead.

A few months later, another complaint appeared, but with a far more forceful tone, including threats of harm to our family. The sender’s identity remains anonymous, but the sender made it clear that he or she has been watching us, under video surveillance, with disturbingly accurate depictions of our daily activities. The sender made clear their intent: to bully us into meeting their demands. They care not of their actions, legal or not, which prompted me to enter a state of fear.

In a split moment, our neighbor redirected my health from an upward trend to a downward spiral. My sleep, sense of safety in my own home and of my home while away, productivity at work and ability to relax in the comfort of my home were all disrupted. Overnight I went from feeling happy and healthy to fearful and ill.

My personal experience triggered me to investigate more about how environments affect our health. A tremendous amount of research shows certain aspects of where you live can affect health. The research is so immense that the national government organized factors into a collective framework known as the Social Determinants of Health. Healthy People 2020 – national objectives aimed at improving the health of all Americans – focuses on many aspects of our social environments that influence, and often predict, health.

In examining why some people get sick and some people do not, the social determinants of health identify conditions of the environment in which we are born, live, learn, play, work and age. How do relationships with our neighbors determine whether or not we get sick?

My recent experience is a great example of how relationships with neighbors can led to illness and ultimately decrease overall quality of life. The prolonged state of interrupted sleep, excessive worry and a constant state of arousal (inability to relax) can depress the immune system. Insufficient sleep and a constant state of alertness compromises the body’s ability to recognize and destroy invaders, specifically unhealthy bacteria and viruses. Longterm states of physical and emotional arousal increase the risk of developing high blood pressure (hypertension), a precursor to heart disease, and metabolic diseases such as diabetes.

Not only can a negative relationship with a neighbor compromise physical health, it can also impact our emotional and social well-being. A sense of feeling disconnected from those around us or a victim of targeted violence can lead to withdrawing from those around us, including from positive relationships we have with other neighbors and our family.

So how can we build a positive neighborhood environment? There is no one perfect answer. However, some suggested basic actions include acquiring name, address and phone numbers of those in your immediate sight, a friendly wave in passing or organizing neighborhood events. For my husband and I, we thrive on open communication with our neighbors. Although we have been victims of neighbor bullying — and by legal definition, stalking — we embrace the many positive relationships we have developed with many of our neighbors. They have embraced us in their support and their positive energy have helped me to regain my health.

This article is dedicated my amazing neighbors! You know who you are, and I thank you for your kindness and genuine friendship.

Alysia Cohen is an Assistant Professor of Athletic Training at Weber State University. She brings an extensive background in athletic health care, strength and conditioning, and public health via personal and population-based approaches to improving health.

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