by Holly Keich
Standing in line at the local craft shop, Valentine’s items strewn about the aisle, I choose to make an impulse purchase of a heart chalkboard. Two, one for each of my children. Not for decoration, but in hopes of instilling kindness and love into their days by hanging them on their door and writing a daily message of gratitude for having them in my life.
As I move towards bringing more love into my family’s life and the world around me, what better time to delve deeper to answer the question, “What inspires love?” than February, the month of LOVE. Perhaps you’ve already heard of the “love hormone,” oxytocin. It is said to be responsible for social bonding. When we hug or kiss a loved one our oxytocin levels increase. (1) Positive comments and positive conversations also spur the production of oxytocin. (2) But as with anything we give a quick glance on the surface, as I delve deeper there is much more to learn about this hormone.
Oxytocin was first recognized for it’s role in the birth process and breastfeeding and it’s particular importance in women. (3) The hormone, when released during labor, promotes contractions and also helps the uterus shrink back to shape after birth. It also increases the production of prostaglandins, which move labor along and increases the contractions even more. (4) The life-altering event of childbirth is a stressful experience, but with the release of oxytocin, not only is the labor moved along, but many women are able to experience the event with love and joy rather than a fight or flight response. (5) Additionally, this hormone has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties that may help modulate pain perception. (6) Certainly a bonus when giving birth.
The true excitement about this hormone began in the 1990’s though when researchers discovered that breastfeeding women are calmer in the face of exercise and psychosocial stress than bottle-feeding mothers. (7) The reason for this is because when an infant suckles at the mother’s breast it stimulates a release of oxytocin which creates the “let down reflex” moving the milk to the breast for baby to consume. At the same time, oxytocin is released into the mother’s brain to stimulate further oxytocin production to enhance bonding with baby. Once the baby stops feeding, the production of the hormone stops until the next feeding. (8) A lack of sufficient oxytocin can prevent the milk letdown reflex and may be one of the reasons that make breastfeeding difficult for some women.
Further studies show that It’s even been found that the higher the levels of oxytocin in the first trimester, the more bonding behaviors we see after birth, such as singing or bathing baby. (9) Interactions such as these (and many others) builds bonds between babies and the parent or caregiver as well and studies show that their oxytocin levels also increase. (10) This comes from the evolutionary process that has shown that pro-social behaviors are beneficial to survival. According to Loretta Graziano Breuning of the Inner Mammal Institute, mammals have learned through the years that “leaving the herd can mean instant death in the jaws of a predator, so the brain rewards you with oxytocin when you have safety in numbers. The nice safe feeling is triggered by trust and touch: they go together in the state of nature because a critter close enough to touch you is close enough to hurt you. The brain makes careful decisions about when to trust instead of releasing oxytocin all the time.” (11)
While oxytocin is typically known for it’s purpose in birth and breastfeeding, there are many other triggers of this hormone such as warm temperature and touch, smells, sounds and other social cues. (12) Even more fascinating is that the release of oxytocin is not limited to just the pituitary gland, a pea-shaped structure at the base of the brain; it can be released from the uterus, ovaries, testes, blood vessels, and the heart. (13) But what I find most fascinating is the oxytocin is released as part of the stress response.
Typically when we think of a stress response, we think of the hormone cortisol coursing through our bodies promoting a “fight or flight” response. Cortisol is the body’s emergency response system. It’s triggered when we face criticism, rejection or fear, when we feel marginalized or minimized and when we feel pain and the anticipation of pain. When present in birth it can slow down labor so you can take care of the actual or perceived threat. In all these situations, it shuts down the thinking center of our brains and activates protective behaviors.
The release of oxytocin instead creates a “tend and befriend” response. When oxytocin comes on board during times of high social stress or pain, it may “lead people to seek out more and better social contacts,” says social psychologist Shelley E. Taylor, PhD, who directs the University of California, Los Angeles, Social Neuroscience Lab. (14) This hormonal response actually encourages people to seek out contact with others in times of stress.
As with all things, balance is key; too little adversity and too much adversity disrupts oxytocin balance, while experiencing just enough stress helps to maintain oxytocin balance. Often we think that our hormones rule us, but there are strategies that we can use to help re-wire the brain and maintain balance. Kelly McGonigal, PhD tells us in her book The Upside of Stress that “viewing a stressful situation as an opportunity to improve your skills, knowledge, or strengths makes it more likely that you will have a challenge response instead of a fight-or-flight response. This, in turn, increases the chance that you will learn from the experience.” (15) In fact, it was her TED Talk the spurred my interest in the topic. If you haven’t already seen it, it’s worth 15 minutes of your time to watch it here.
Now we know we have the opportunity to grow just by our perception of stressful events. What are some other ways that we can encourage hormonal balance and love in our life?
- Volunteering – especially if you are experiencing the same stress or subjected to the emotional trauma or disaster event.
- Journaling – even just 10 minutes where you reflect on your core values and motivation can change how you face stressful events.
- Assigning Meaning – giving your life events greater meaning through aspirational goals, reflection on core values that keep you connected to the greater purpose of life – realizing we’re all ONE.
- Self Care – Exercising, spiritual practice, reading, listening to music, spending time with family or friends, get a massage, walking, yoga, creative hobbies
- Strengthen Mindfulness – Being in the present moment protects you from anxiety and depression. Daily meditation for just 5 minutes a day can make an impact for a lifetime.
- Avoid Continuous Negative News – Watching or reading the news about stressful events is one of the largest triggers of stress. We also often watch the news alone which can exacerbate our stress response and deplete willpower.
- Avoid Dopamine Releasing Activities – Gambling, shopping, smoking, drinking, eating, playing video games, surfing the internet or binging on TV or movies for more than 2 hours.
Practicing these activities you can build new neural circuits through repetition. For the most effect, perform the new behaviors or thought patterns for 45 days consistently. (16) The more you practice these activities the more balanced and stress-free you will feel, the more in balance your oxytocin will be, and the more love you will feel in your life and be able to share those around you.
Holly Keich is a Licensed Social Worker and Owner of Om Baby Pregnancy & Parenting Center in Camp Hill, PA. For more info about her work, visit www.ombabycenter.com.