While giving a massage today, a client and I got on the interesting subject of the lack of touch in most people’s everyday lives. This general discussion of touch soon turned into a very specific discussion of a hormone that is crucial to our emotional well-being called oxytocin.
This is a hormone that we find in the “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” type of book. Known as the “tend and befriend” hormone, mothers get a rush of this right after giving birth. Waves of love, euphoria, and the desire to take care of our young let us forget the hours (or days) of agony we just went through. Childbearing isn’t the only thing that stimulates this hormone however (thank goodness). This hormone can also be triggered by a loving touch, such as a hug or a massage, and is responsible for a good “afterglow”.
Ok, so most people know that a hug or a massage will make them feel good. What if I told you that just thinking about such things could make you feel better? A vivid memory of joy or thinking intensely about a loving relationship will also cause a spike in oxytocin, which lets the body relax and feel good. This means that the quality of your memories and relationships alter your brains chemistry in a measurable way.
The importance of this becomes clearer when we look at the ways people handle high stress situations. Shelly Taylor, a psychology professor at UCLA writes in her book The Tending Instinct that there are two basic ways to handle stress: 1) you go to combat with it – fight or flight, or 2) you reach out to your support group – tend and befriend. In the first case, adrenaline and cortisol go pumping through the body. We’ve been hearing a lot about cortisol lately because of the discovery that high cortisol can contribute to weight-gain, especially right on the waistline, which is the most dangerous place to carry extra pounds. This excess of adrenaline takes its toll on the heart, raising blood pressure. Constant spikes of these two hormones will eventually wear the adrenals down to a dangerous level.
Conversely, the person who reaches out for support gets a little spike in oxytocin. This hormone helps people get over disappointments and deal with stress in a calm and cool way. It forms new neural pathways in the brain which will help the nerves to remain calm the next time they are faced with a similar challenge. Reaching out to others also strengthens the relationship, which in turn creates more good feelings for both them and you, so it becomes a self-perpetuating cycle.
Of course, there are already people out to profit by this information. Vero Labs now offers “Liquid Trust in a Bottle”, at atmospheric body spray that uses the hormone oxytocin to get people to trust you more and bond with you easily. No worries about this being used to manipulate people though, it says on the website “We are strongly opposed to the use of Liquid Trust for immoral or illegal manipulations of people. We truly hope that you will only use our products when you have the other person’s best interest in mind.”
Or, you could get roughly the same affect by giving a genuine hug.