Community can mean different things to each of us. Yesterday, a 3 year old came to see me in clinic. She must have been a little nervous about the visit. When I got into the exam room, I found her accompanied by her dad, 3 baby dolls in a stroller, and 2 on her back. You see, I think she felt quite a bit safer surrounded by her community. I was charmed. But then reminded. Community is a combination of the people, words, geography, support, and sometimes even sounds that surround us.

A study published last week demonstrated the calming effect of a mother’s voice. In the study, while completing a stressful task, 7 to 12 year old girls’ levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) rose in expected ways. You get stressed, your cortisol surges. But when comforted by their mother’s hug or their mother’s voice on the phone after the task was completed, levels of oxytocin (a hormone associated with bonding) soared while the stress hormone cortisol washed away. Girls who didn’t get to talk with their moms didn’t have this hormonal shift. Just the sound of a mother’s voice was enough to shift the stress response in these girls.

This data help confirm what we already know; hearing Mom’s (or Dad’s, I suspect) voice can simply make things feel better.

Of course how we communicate is rapidly changing as social media, cell phones, YouTube, Twitter, and text-messaging invades our daily motion. We can question social media’s intrusion in our life (understatement of the century) but we can also recognize how it uniquely and intricately builds virtual and real community around each of us.

Social media often gets a bad rap in the medical world. Those who don’t immerse themselves in it may not understand its potential for changing the world, sharing ideas and expertise, and for learning. I get more out of blogging, tweeting, speaking and interviewing than I put into it. With every hour I spend online working, preparing, and writing, I become more knowledgeable about caring for children, better at my job as a pediatrician and mom, and certainly more connected with my community. Real and virtual.

Take this morning. I jump in the shower and notice the water smells funny. Then run the water in the kitchen for the coffee pot, same thing. The faucet water smells a bit fishy. I’m the only one in the house that notices it. I ask the husband, the nanny, and the boys. I reaffirm to myself that I’m not crazy. Sincerely, I think it’s that lingering postpartum (yes, 18 months postpartum) wicked sense of smell I’m left with after making those babies. You know what I mean? I keep talking about it.

I get worried the water may not be safe. It dawns on me that I have a unique community to survey: Twitter. To see if other postpartum-fine-tuned-smelling-moms out there smell what I do, I tweet about the water smell. Within a few minutes, one of my Twitter followers sends me a link to Seattle Water Taste, Odor & Color safety line. She describes herself as a Disaster Guru; in my world she is!  I call Seattle Water and they return my call within the hour. It turns out that there was water hydrant use and work on my street yesterday which has caused the change in odor. They confirm it has been tested, it’s safe to drink, and instruct me on clearing out the smelly water.

Boom. Community re-defined. On the phone or while on Twitter, our personal community can temper the cortisol surges and stress in our life. Both for ourselves and for our children.