Oxytocin: what it is, what it does, and how to boost it
Updated: Jun 3
What it is: You’ve probably heard about the stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol. They prepare our body and mind to cope with danger, and at the same time they produce in us a feeling of discomfort. No-one likes feeling anxious, but the advantage of this uncomfortable feeling is that it keeps us away from danger.
Conversely there are chemicals in the body that make us feel great. These are neurotransmitters and hormones like serotonin, oxytocin, dopamine and endorphins. They are released when we do something that is “good” for us, and so we are given a chemical reward, resulting in a pleasant feeling to encourage us to do it again. It’s like a chemical stick and carrot guiding us through life.
Oxytocin is the chemical released when we fall in love, have sex, give birth, breast feed, and babies get it when they suckle and are cuddled.
It produces in us a feeling of bonding and security. From an evolutionary perspective, it keeps us with our partner and children at least long enough to increase the chance that our offspring survive, and therefore the species.
It is released when we are bonding and feeling connected to others, friends and family, those people who bring out the best in us. Those people who make us laugh the most may be the ones who boost our oxytocin the most. Laughter and smiling both increase oxytocin levels. Fortunately for us in the current situation of lockdown, it’s also released when we speak to our loved ones, by phone or online. In fact one bit of research showed that even thinking about our loved ones can release oxytocin.
It is also released with touch, whether that’s massage, stroking, cuddling, hugging. And not just with people, stroking our pets, or even a soft toy releases it. Some research shows the most oxytocin is released from being with your dog. Possibly because that relationship is a lot less complicated!
What it does:
The biological effect oxytocin has on our bodies is to lower the stress hormone cortisol, and to dilate blood vessels. This lowers blood pressure, and increases the health of the heart, protecting it from damage. It produces a relaxation response in the body, lowering the heart rate and increasing a feeling of calm. It also reduces our perception of pain, improves wound healing time, reduces inflammation and helps remove toxins and damaging free radicals from the body more effectively. Finally, it improves digestion, great news for those with IBS, which is often stress-related.
The psychological effect of oxytocin is to increase a sense of calm, a sense of belonging and security, an overall sense of wellbeing.
Basically it makes us more resilient, that ability to recover from set backs quickly. In fact oxytocin can help us bounce back both physically and emotionally.
Why bother knowing all this? Because we can increase our oxytocin levels by what we do and what we think about. Yes, we can actually control how we feel by changing our actions and thoughts!
And in times of stress, an increase in these feel-good chemicals enables us to cope better with the problems and stressors we are having to deal with. Just removing the stressors can help, but life is full of them and others will take their place. Removing the current problem is not a long-term answer. But learning how to boost the feel-good chemicals in your body will allow us to deal with future challenges too. Plus some stressors just can’t be removed. The current situation itself is something we cannot control and it’s bringing to light many other stressors we probably weren’t as aware of before: noisy neighbours, irritating family members, fear of running out of stuff.
When we increase the feel good chemicals, we actually decrease the amount of attention that one part of the brain is paying to the “problems” and either they become less irritating, or we find ways to solve them as the brain moves out of it’s defence mode and into it’s solution focused mode.
How can you boost your own oxytocin levels? Do those things that make you feel connected to those you love. Phone or Skype friends and family. Send little messages.
Leave little notes for your partner or children. Kindness also boosts oxytocin! Send out loving thoughts to friends and family. There is a lovely meditation you can do called Loving Kindness (there are many others on YouTube) which is perfect for counteracting lockdown isolation.
If close family (especially those you are locked down with!) are getting on your nerves, try focusing on the things you love about them. Write down a list of at least 20 things about them that you love, admire, make you proud, make you laugh etc. This helps to rebalance how you view them. Change how you see people and they change from being a source of irritation to being a source of oxytocin. And, of course, you will boost their oxytocin in turn. Watch how that changes them, and the relationship!
If you are not socially distancing within your household, and it’s safe to do so, cuddle more. Hug more. Long hugs produce more oxytocin. Cuddle your pets more (if they’ll let you!). And if you have soft toys, cuddle them too, or a cushion or pillow will do. Yes, even adults benefit from this! (And it’s lockdown, no-one is looking).
Self-soothing behaviors with particular reference to oxytocin release induced by non-noxious sensory stimulation, Uvnäs-Moberg K, Handlin L, Petersson M., Frontiers in Psychology, 2015 12:1529
Hamilton, D. (2017) The five side effects of kindness, Hay House