If you have ever read my blog before, you know I am a full-on nerd. Today’s post is the nerdiest yet. This information can be found, like the last few weeks, in Love Sense by Sue Johnson, but it has also become common knowledge and can be found many other places as well. (But buy Love Sense: it will change your life!)
You may not have heard of oxytocin before, or you may not be familiar with its important role in the brain. Oxytocin is a hormone and a nuerotransmitter.
Your brain gets a rush of oxytocin when you look at a loved one, remember a happy event with a loved one, hold hands, hug, breast feed, hold a baby, or even play with a pet. Snuggling on the couch, rocking a child to sleep, or cuddling with your cat or dog will all produce that warm fuzzy feeling that comes from oxytocin. The biggest rush of oxytocin comes from orgasm, which is why we like to cuddle after sex. It is also the hormone that sends a pregnant woman into labor (pitocin, the drug they may have given you to induce labor, is the synthetic form of oxytocin), but that is in a whole different quantity than what we usually have in our body.
Oxytocin is only found in mammals; the presence of oxytocin is part of what causes a mother to care for her babies after they are born, often at great cost to herself. (I know birds take care of their babies too, but I haven’t read what causes that behavior in non-mammals.) Oxytocin increases our tendancy to trust, to have empathy, and can actually reduce the perception of physical pain. With the presence of oxytocin, the amgdala (the fight/flight/freeze/f–k part of the brain) calms down, allowing the person to feel calmer and safer.
So what does this mean for you and your relationships? It means that when you feel sad, angry, hurt, lonely, depressed, or anxious, getting a hug or petting your cat really does make you feel better. It means that your romantic relationship can be improved by holding hands and having sex. It means your kids will be calmer and happier after a bedtime snuggle. All of this has been folk wisdom for centuries…but now you know the science behind it.