My husband and I get together with four other couples once per month to have dinner and spend time together. Last night, we all hugged each other as we arrived and again as we left. Later, as I was revelling in how good I felt inside after such an enjoyable evening, I started thinking about oxytocin, the vagus nerve, and memory as related to happiness. (I mean, wouldn’t those be your first thoughts?!)
For now, I would love to delve further into oxytocin. Oxytocin is a neurotransmitter (hormone) released by the pituitary gland and it is related to our ability to bond as well as our preferences to someone in our group as opposed to outsiders. It is sometimes referred to as the “cuddle hormone” or the “love hormone” because it is released when we hug, snuggle up together, or bond socially. In women, oxytocin is also involved in labor, breast-feeling, and mother-child bonding.
Oxytocin affects the brain and the organs in the peripheral nervous system. The release of oxytocin has been shown to increase trust toward others with whom we are bonding, but also to quiet stress response in the body by modulating levels of the stress hormone cortisol, inhibiting cardiovascular response to stress, and lowering the amygdala’s (fear center in the brain) response to stimuli.
The oxytocin molecule.
Healthy touch has been shown to stimulate the Orbito-Frontal Cortex in the brain; the area associated with reward and compassion. It also calms the cardiovascular system, activates the vagus nerve, and leads to the release of oxytocin. Those who touch more are, on the whole, healthier. Research on healthy touch has also shown an increase in a patient’s trust with his or her doctor, as well as an increase in student participation in class when appropriate touch is used, such as a pat on the back, a hand on the shoulder, or a touch on the arm.
So, what are some ways that we can experience a boost in oxytocin? I happen to have a few ideas for you.
- Schedule quality time with your children, friends, family, and pets. Be open to both giving and receiving healthy touch through hand shakes, hand holding, hugs, pats, and squeezes.
- When you wake up and you are still warm in bed, treat yourself to a little self-massage to wake your brain and body up together. Use this as a way to check in with your body and to practice gratitude for all that your body does for you each day. Start at your toes and massage each toe with your fingers, then your feet, up to your ankles, calves, around the knees, thighs, hips, and buns. Next, move to your fingers, hands, wrists, forearms, around the elbows, upper arms, shoulders, neck, and chest. Gently massage your face and all over your scalp. Finally, give your back and belly a little rub down and take a few deep breaths before hopping out of bed to face the day.
- Before (as the warm water will drive the moisturizing oil into your skin) or after showering, try a sweet self-massage with oil such as cold-pressed sesame, coconut, or almond oil. Your skin will thank you and you will begin to feel better in your own body.
- Schedule yourself to go and get a massage from a professional. Massage helps to boost immune response in the body, so really it is a preventative practice during cold and flu season.
- Don’t be afraid to pat a co-worker on the back who has done a good job or to shake the hand of a stranger as you wish them happy holidays. Or at least look them in the eyes and smile. The vagus nerve will know exactly what you are doing and take it from there.
We could all benefit from more love and kindness in the world and you can contribute by simply reaching out to those around you.
So, in the coming week and beyond, give it a try. Believe me, it feels great.
I will be trying right along with you.
Talk again soon,