Release the Flow of Oxytocin for Emotional and Relationship Health

Pssst…have you heard of oxytocin?  If you’re committed to improving your emotional and relationship health, it’s something you might want to learn a bit more about.  In the article, Love Potion #1?: Human Hormone Increases Positive Communication Between Couples (ScienceDaily.com), the question was raised as to whether oxytocin might assist couples in discussing difficult topics by reducing their cortisol (stress) levels.  Another study (Bonn University and Cambridge’s Babraham Institute) found oxytocin regulates emotional empathy.    

What exactly is oxytocin?  Are there additional benefits?  How can one release the flow of oxytocin in themselves – and each other?

Oxytocin is a naturally occurring neurochemical that  acts like a hormone in our bodies, meaning it crosses the blood-brain barrier and circulates in the blood steam as well as in the brain, to regulate the arousal level of our nervous system.  Oxytocin is released through touch, warmth, and affectionate connection.  Classic examples of connections that release oxytocin are breastfeeding and orgasm, both of which can generate a blissful, other-worldly sense of contentment, “everything is all right.”

But any warm, loving, touch can release oxytocin – hugs, snuggles, holding hands, partner dancing, massage and body work.  Neuroscience has confirmed, because of how our brains process information, even thinking about someone who loves us or someone we deeply care for is enough to activate the release of oxytocin in the brain. Which is very good news as we learn to use the relax and repair quality of oxytocin to re-pair and heal old relational wounds with new experiences of safe and affectionate connection.

Here are five benefits of evoking the natural release of oxytocin in our body-brains:

  1. Oxytocin directly and immediately reverses our body’s response to stress.  Oxytocin is just one of the many neurochemicals modern brain science is discovering are potent catalysts of psycho-physiological change in our body-brain.  Oxytocin is one of the most relevant for healing relational distress because it is the neurochemical basis for the felt sense of safety and trust that instantly antidotes the stress response of fight-flight-freeze.
  2. Oxytocin creates a buffer against stress in the future.  We can also use the oxytocin response to prime the brain to be less reactive to stress in the future, because the chemical cascade of oxytocin, evoked whenever we remember someone we care for or feel cared for by, acts as a buffer against stress even before it occurs.  Phil Shaver, in his Handbook on Attachment, reports on research he’s done at U.C. Davis, “priming” subjects’ brains to exhibit less reactivity to a disturbing event by thinking of someone they love or feel safe with first.  Consistently, the oxytocin released in remembering a secure attachment figure acted as a buffer against a stressful trigger a few minutes later.  Sue Carter of the Chicago Psychiatric Institute, one of this country’s first researchers on oxytocin, says, “People under the influence of oxytocin don’t have the same stress response that others do; bad news rolls off them more easily.”
  3. Oxytocin helps activate the neuroplasticity we need for learning and change.  Oxytocin is the hormone of bonding and attachment; oxytocin creates the “neural cement” of the loving bond. Mega-doses in childbirth, breastfeeding, making love; smaller steady doses in every hug, friendly touch, and moment of affection. The neural circuitry of this oxytocin-based bond, like everything else in the early brain development of the infant-child, develops in the interactions with our earliest caregivers, shaped by the parenting style of the parent.  Lots of touch, warmth, safety, loving connection and attunement, this oxytocin response matures well.  Less than optimal attachment, less than optimal conditioning, less than optimal development of this circuitry.  Lack of warmth and touch in a client’s earliest attachment relationships can de-rail the full maturation of oxytocin receptors in the brain.  A deficiency in this “molecule of motherly love” makes it much harder for people to “feel” the love and trust available to them in other relationships later in life.  And experiencing new, safe, loving connections later in life is what re-builds this oxytocin circuitry.
  4. Oxytocin heals wounding of previous relationships.  Oxytocin is the hormone of relational repair.  When we can experience in our bodies now a sense of safety and trust that allows us to take in a sense of connection and belonging now, we can begin to heal the hole in the heart from lack or loss of connection back then.  We are hardwired in our brainstem to respond with a separation distress response when we are suddenly cut off from a human connection we depend on for physical or psychological survival or emotional well-being.  There are neural cells around the heart that are activated when we long to connect with another, which is why we feel a literal heartache when that yearning for connection is not met.  When our yearning for connection and love is met (and any safe, loving relationship can do this, with a best friend, a loving spouse or partner, a beloved child or pet, a loving grandparent or teacher in the third grade, a therapist, a spiritual figure like Jesus, the Dalai Lama, or Quan Yin),the relax and repair capacity of oxytocin begins to works it’s therapeutic magic.
  5. Oxytocin helps “re-wire” our brain’s “rules” of relationship.  Scientists are discovering that changing the neurochemical scripts in the brain primes the brain to alter its neuronal scripts as well.  We can begin to “re-wire” the deep encoding of all of our habitual, often unconscious, patterns of feeling, dealing and relating when we “re-pair” old messages about self in relationship with new more oxytocin-based experiences of connection and love.  Bruce Ecker, in his article “The Brain’s Rules for Change” in the Jan.-Feb. 2010 Psychotherapy Networker, describes a mechanism of experience-driven neuroplasticity to do this re-pairing and re-wiring that oxytocin could be a key player in.  If that new experience of our self in relationship is awash with oxytocin, if we “feel” safe and loved and cherished strongly enough in that split second of re-wiring, the more positive oxytocin-based sense of self in relationship will contradict and trump the old negative message or script.  It will re-pair and re-wire in that moment.  According to Ecker, this mechanism of healing relational trauma can be dramatically instant, and the effects can be dramatically permanent.

(This is an adaptation of the April 2010 newsletter by Linda Graham, MFT, with permission.)