Tools for Resilience: “Hand on the Heart” for Calm

Linda Graham, MFT looks at oxytocin’s ability to calm the mind/body and increase resilience.  She offers an exercise to do that.

Oxytocin is the neurotransmitter of the “calm and connect” response and is the brain’s direct and immediate antidote to the stress hormone cortisol.  Oxytocin is the neurochemical basis in our  body for the felt sense of safety and trust, of connection and belonging, which reassures us “everything is OK; everything is going to be OK.”   You might say oxytocin is the neurochemical foundation of resilience, lifelong. Researchers have demonstrated that a single exposure to oxytocin can create a lifelong change in the brain.

The very fast-track way to release oxytocin and calm down stress, even extreme stress, is through safe touch and warmth in a safe, soothing relationship. Safe touch anywhere on our bodies, even from ourselves when a reminder of safe touch with others, triggers the release of oxytocin and brings our entire body back into a state of calm and trust. Any warm, loving touch can release oxytocin – hugs, snuggles, holding hands, partner dancing, cuddles with a pet, massage and body work.

Fortunately, we are learning from neuroscience how to activate the release of oxytocin any time we need to in our lives, even without touch. We can also activate the release of oxytocin, calm down our stress response, and return to in inner equilibrium by connecting, or remembering connections with, safe others. Moments of feeling safe and loved, activates the release of oxytocin in the brain. We can intentionally change our neurochemistry to change our physiological state.

We can give our brains baths of oxytocin whenever we are with someone we love and who loves us – for real loves us, not just “supposed to” loves us. Neuroscientists have demonstrated many times that even remembering or imagining someone we love, with whom we feel loved, is enough to release small but regular doses of oxytocin.   This can include feeling “held” by a spiritual figure or religious deity, as well. When the oxytocin is flowing throughout our body-brain, when we do, we again feel safe in our body and in our world, we can once again think clearly and respond wisely.

The following practical experiential exercise offers a technique of “self-directed neuroplasticity” that will help you harness the capacities of your brain to rewire itself for greater resilience, lifelong.   It will be useful to engage in this exercise with curiosity and openness, as “experiments” rather than following fixed rules and expecting a guaranteed outcome. As you reflect on the learning your brain is encoding from each exercise, you may notice an increasing joy and well-being from re-wiring your brain as you go along.

Hand on the Heart

We come into the steady calm of an inner equilibrium by steadily experiencing moments of feeling safe, loved, cherished, and letting those moments register in our body and encode new circuitry in our brain.

  • Begin by placing your hand on your heart, feeling the warmth of your own touch. Breathe gently and deeply into your heart center. Breathe into your heart center any sense of goodness, safety, trust, acceptance, ease, you can muster. Breathe a sense of calm and peace into your heart center. You may elaborate this as you wish. Breathing in a sense of contentment, well-being, a sense of kindness for yourself, gratitude for others. Slowly gently breathing in qualities of self care and self-love into your heart.
  • Once that’s steady, call to mind a moment of being with someone who loves you unconditionally, someone you feel completely safe with. This may, of course, be a moment with a beloved partner or a beloved child or parent, though the dynamics of those relationships can sometimes be complicated and the emotions mixed. So you may choose a moment of being with any True Other to your True Self – a dear friend, a trusted teacher, a close colleague or neighbor – a moment when you felt seen and accepted, loved and cherished. It may be your therapist, your grandmother, a third grade teacher or a spiritual figure like Jesus or the Dalai Lama; it could be your Wiser Self. It could be a beloved pet. Pets are great for this, actually.
  • As you remember feeling safe and loved with this person or pet, see if you can sense in your body the positive feelings and sensations that come up with that memory. Really savor this feeling of warmth, safety, trust, and love in your body. Take a moment to allow the feeling to become steady in your body.
  • When that feeling is steady, let go of the image and simply bathe in the feeling itself for 30 seconds. Savor the rich nurturing of this feeling; let it really soak in.

As Dan Goleman says in Social Intelligence,

“Repeated exposures to the people with whom we feel the closest social bonds can condition the release of oxytocin, so that merely being in their presence, or even just thinking about them, may trigger in us a pleasant dose of the good feelings that this molecule bestows. Close, positive, long-term relationships may offer us a relatively steady source of oxytocin release; every hug, friendly touch, and affectionate moment may prime this neurochemical balm a bit. Small wonder office cubicles are papered with photos of loved ones.”