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The Magic of Being Human: Oxytocin

You are snuggling with your new baby in the hospital, just hours after his birth. The blood pressure cuff beeps as it turns on, but you barely hear it; you’re focusing on those sleepy little eyes opening and turning toward you, the soft downy skin warm on your chest, the pucker of those perfect, tiny lips. This is heaven.

You’re fourteen. You’re with your new girlfriend behind the bleachers. She puts her arms around your neck and your heart jumps a little. Then your first kiss washes over you like a wave, warm and dawn-colored and a little tingly. It’s the most amazing thing you’ve ever felt.

You and your lover are snuggling in bed; the lights are out, so your awareness is on the smell of their skin and the warmth of them against your skin, the feel of their arm beneath your head. Your lover has just shared something they’ve never told you before, entrusting you with a new part of their life. You feel so close and safe in this moment that you wish it would never end.

It’s been a hard day, and you almost canceled coffee with your best friend. But you knew you’d regret it, so you dragged yourself to the coffee shop anyways. When you see your friend—that familiar face you’ve known for over ten years now—something lights up a little inside your chest. The feel of the hug you share—a good, solid bear hug that lasts long enough for your muscles to start to relax—makes you remember that life isn’t so bad after all. You’ve got good people in your corner.

The common thread that ties all of these scenes together is oxytocin.

In each encounter, both people are experiencing a surge of the hormone oxytocin, otherwise known as the “cuddle hormone” or the “love hormone.” In fact, if you’re an imaginative person, and you put yourself into those scenes as you read them, your body may have actually produced a little oxytocin just now. Can you feel a teeny tiny warm glow inside? Did you let out a quiet sigh of contentment? That’s oxytocin doing its beautiful thing.

Oxytocin is part of the magic of being human. This hormone utilizes a positive feedback mechanism, where once it’s activated, it stimulates more of its own release. It plays a role in sexual arousal and in breastfeeding and mother-infant bonding. It also is closely tied to the act of recognizing a familiar face, feeling trust with another human being, emotional bonding in relationships, and the development of secure attachment.

Emotional connection in close relationships and loving touch are both primary experiences that stimulate our body’s release of oxytocin. And oxytocin feels good; when we get a taste of it, we want more, so we come back again and again to the source of that good feeling. It’s part of what makes falling in love or becoming a parent such powerful and even intoxicating experiences. It’s part of what glues us to the people we love and keeps us coming back to them, even through conflict or hardship or distance. It’s part of the biological system of attachment that keeps parents from abandoning their offspring. It’s how we are wired, as social creatures, to form relationships and communities that improve our chances of survival and enhance our life.

Oxytocin is at work in the most fundamental relationships of our lives.

Oxytocin plays an important role in the falling in love, early bonding, and “honeymoon phase” of romantic relationships; the massive doses of oxytocin involved in these stages of a relationship bring out the best in us, but they can also make it hard to think clearly about the relationship. The honeymoon phase can last for up to 18 months…and then, suddenly, as dopamine and oxytocin levels fall and the feelings of being in love start to fade, we can wake up and wonder what we’re doing with this person and why we chose them in the first place!

But the rituals of romance and intimacy keep a healthy flow of oxytocin going even in long-term relationships. Holding hands while you watch TV, kissing before you leave for work, spooning as you go to sleep, and engaging in emotionally safe and mutually pleasurable sexual intimacy all release powerful doses of oxytocin. Sharing about your day, supporting one another through stressful times, crying together, and reliving fond memories from earlier in the relationship are also ways of increasing oxytocin and maintaining health and closeness in a relationship.

Oxytocin is also crucial in parenting and raising children; while it’s a vital part of a woman’s physiology in pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding, it doesn’t stop being important after that, and it’s just as important in non-gestational parent-child relationships (biological fathers or non-pregnant parents, adoptive parents, etc.). It’s active in the bonding process that starts in intimacy and continues through every cuddle, good night kiss, and tender hair-ruffling. When your kids want to play with you or sit in your lap while they watch their favorite show at the end of a day apart, they’re seeking that feeling of closeness and safety from you that’s so deeply soothing and regulating for them—and neurobiologically, oxytocin is part of what communicates that sense of safety and calm to their brains. Taking time to meet those biological needs for closeness after a temporary separation can make the rest of the evening go smoother.

Having fun with your kids is another way to maximize oxytocin—and fun has the added benefit of involving dopamine, the pleasure chemical, in the mix. This combination of oxytocin and dopamine lights up the reward centers of the brain and keeps us all coming back for more. Fun can enhance learning by creating powerful positive associations in the brain that reinforce targeted behaviors; in this way, fun can serve just as important of a role as discipline in your family’s every-day functioning. When you want to shift your children’s behavior, consequences aren’t your only option. Next time you’re feeling stuck, try using a little fun to shape behavior, and watch how it sticks even better than behavior motivated by fear or consequences!

I think the feeling of "oxytocin withdrawal" is one of the hardest parts of being single.

For those of you who have spent long periods of time without a romantic partner—particularly if you also have no children to raise—you may be familiar with the phenomenon known as “skin hunger.” It’s the acutely miserable feeling of craving the touch of another person, a sort of crawl-out-of-your-skin longing that is both physiological and deeply emotional. I remember, in my years as a single, childless adult, being driven to tears by skin hunger and feeling devastated if a friend waved hello instead of hugging me. If you don’t have people in your life who can boost your oxytocin levels on a regular basis, it’s important for your mental health to find other avenues to address skin hunger—activities like ballroom dancing or contact improv, or even a contact sport like judo that also involves playful physical contact among people who train together; regular massages; caring for an animal; volunteering with young children or infants; building affectionate touch into platonic friendships.

Some of these ways of engaging with others physically and emotionally are particularly challenging for men, who have all been deeply harmed by our culture’s toxic messages around what constitutes acceptable masculinity, and whether or not emotional needs and vulnerability are allowed to be part of it. Many men have no close friends, but even close male friendships are much less likely to involve affectionate physical touch or rituals of emotional bonding than equivalent female friendships. Lonely men suffer in their hearts, minds, and bodies; rates of mental health problems skyrocket, and often, there is no one close enough to intervene when a lonely man needs help. For men, finding ways to connect physically and relationally with those around you can be a matter of life and death; oxytocin can help keep you alive.

Oxytocin is woven into the experience of secure attachment.

People with secure attachment styles actually have more oxytocin receptors in their brains than their insecurely attached counterparts. This means that securely attached people are neurobiologically advantaged, more likely to experience relationships as rewarding, satisfying, and a source of comfort, and more able to share feelings of trust with others. Providing our children with plenty of oxytocin-boosting interactions actually adds to their resiliency throughout life.

If you missed out on these kinds of brain-enhancing interactions in your own childhood, though, don’t despair. Because of neuroplasticity, our brains are always adapting to our experiences, capable of growth throughout the lifespan; as we grow toward greater security in our relationships, whether through experiencing the gift of a safe, emotionally connected relationship or through engaging in the hard work of making sense of past relational experiences, our ability to feel trust, safety, joy, and satisfaction in relationships also grows.

If you identify as insecurely attached, one of the best things you can do for your body and your brain is to give it a workout: start hugging your friends, or at least accepting hugs when they’re offered; practice having fun, especially with others; try out vulnerability and emotional connection in small doses, and then take a few bigger risks with the people who respond in kind; let yourself love deeply, even if you have to start with a dog or a horse or a rabbit; try using gentle touch to connect in hard moments in your close relationships, instead of retreating, attacking, arguing, or shutting down.

Perhaps the most powerful way to grow, though, is through the practice of self-compassion. We are not solely reliant on others to experience the warm glow of oxytocin; your body actually can’t tell the difference between your own touch and the touch of another. If you stroke your own cheek, lay a hand on your arm, or use your hands to apply gentle pressure to your chest, your body will respond. Using self-touch as a concrete demonstration of self-compassion can be a beautiful way of soothing your emotions, caring for your body, and welcoming all the parts of you into a safe relationship with your wise, kind Self.

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