Woven Program Provides Women Support Circle

by Rachel Carlton Abrams, MD

In my last two decades of practice as a family doc, I have been amazed, and sometimes astounded, by the ability of my patients to heal themselves.  So much so, that I find myself searching for “clues” while listening to my patients tell the stories of their health challenges. What are the experiences or findings that will help us “unlock” their ability to heal.  The clues are varied: a previous history of trauma that has never been addressed, closet alcoholism, unrecognized depression, signs of vitamin deficiencies, or un-treated sleep apnea, as small examples.  These stumbling blocks suppress the body’s ability to heal itself or impair the patient’s ability to make healing choices in his or her life.  My dual board certification in Integrative Medicine has been invaluable in helping me discover ways to support patients to help themselves and avoid unnecessary medications or interventions.  I love the deep detective work that I get to do with patients and families in my practice—it is endlessly fascinating and enormously satisfying.  

However, one of the more challenging areas that I find myself exploring in my detective work with patients, is their sometimes desperate lack of love and community.  Now, you may say that this is really not my job—that I should call in a social worker or a therapist—but as I know you know… these folks are hard to come by on the spot when you need them.  And as a doc who is really concerned for health prevention, the statistics on the health benefits of love and community are staggering.  More important than cigarettes.  More important than exercise.  More important than a healthy diet.  Or even stress.  

According to the famed Alameda study, the risk of death among people with the fewest social ties is more than twice as high as the risk for adults with the most social ties, independent of socioeconomic status or health behaviors. (1)  In another study of 3000 nurses with breast cancer, women who are socially isolated are twice as likely to die from breast cancer and have a 66% increased risk of dying from any cause.  The nurses in this study who had the most friends–ten or more–were four times more likely to survive their cancer. (2)

In many ways, this health crisis of isolation is a modern phenomenon.  None of us would have survived alone throughout our human evolution—until relatively recently.  We needed each other for food, protection, and childrearing.  And in my study of traditional cultures (I’m a closet medical anthropologist), I can think of no example of a thriving culture where women did not gather together on a regular basis for socializing, childcare, food preparation, weaving, agriculture, or a multitude of other tasks that the community needed.  We are genetically and neurologically built for community and affection.  As a physician seeking to help my patients heal individually, but also to heal our world, I felt compelled to do something to re-build community, and, being female, started with women.  Also, let’s be honest, women are easier to gather.

I co-founded Woven, a collaboration of face-to-face and heart-to-heart circles of women that gather in communities all over the world to share wisdom, stories, and support, with the intention of addressing isolation in women’s lives.  Woven circles are particular to the place and the people who start them.  We provide a structure for how to run a circle, including some basic training in listening and reflection, but women, unsurprisingly, are “naturals” at gathering together for support and transformation.  It has been touching and inspiring to hear what happens when women truly feel listened to.  They make life-changing decisions, which, of course, positively affect their mental and physical health.

Woven is a simple intervention, but addresses one of the most profound risks to health that we encounter.  I have been writing prescriptions for massages, romantic dates, obtaining a pet, and other behavioral changes for years.  And now I can prescribe love and community.  It’s a powerful healer.


(1) Berkman Lisa F., Syme Leonard. 1979. Social Networks, Host Resistance, and Mortality: A Nine-Year Follow-up Study of Alameda County Residents.   American Journal of Epidemiology 117:1003-1009

(2) . H. Kroenke et al., “Social Networks, Social Support, and Sur- vival After Breast Cancer Diagnosis,” Journal of Clinical Oncology 24, no. 7 (March 1, 2006); 1105–11.


Rachel Carlton Abrams, MD, is a family practice physician and the Medical Director of the Santa Cruz Integrative Medicine & Chi Center, a multidisciplinary holistic health clinic serving Santa Cruz County:  http://www.santacruzchicenter.com/intmedicine/rachael-abrams-md.html