Love is the feeling and experience that ties us together. When we experience too much stress and anxiety in our lives, it breaks down vital relationships and leaves us feeling lonely and isolated. Adults who are under constant stress and anxiety experience more bouts of depression, dissatisfaction in life and increased health challenges.
Oxytocin, a peptide that functions as both a hormone and neurotransmitter, has broad influences on social and emotional processing throughout the brain and body. Oxytocin is a peptide of nine amino acids that is produced in the hypothalamus and released into both the brain and bloodstream. Functioning as both a neurotransmitter and hormone, oxytocin’s role throughout the body is widespread. Included is the hypothalamus, amygdala, hippocampus, brainstem, heart, uterus and regions of the spinal cord which regulates the autonomic nervous system, especially the parasympathetic branch (Neumann 2008). Oxytocin’s role in reproductive functions is well known. Its contribution to pair-bond formation has been systematically studied (Gimpl and Fahrenholz 2001).
How Does it Work?
In our stressful and stressed-out society, it’s not surprising that science has focused most of its research on the stress response. But there’s another response that’s just as important. Kerstin Uvnas-Moberg, the Swedish researcher who first identified it, calls it the “calm and connection system.” In her 2003 book, The Oxytocin Factor, she describes how oxytocin calms the body while it helps us connect with other people.
Oxytocin influences so many processes of the body/mind that it’s difficult to identify a calm and connection circuit that would be similar to the fear circuit. But, like the fear circuit, the hypothalamus and pituitary gland play a central role in the calm and connection circuit. The hypothalamus is the beginning of the chain reaction that sends adrenaline rushing through the body. It is the command central for the oxytocin response. The hypothalamus releases oxytocin directly into the parts of the brain that handle positive social interaction. It also sends some to the pituitary gland for release into the bloodstream where it affects internal organs.
Many parts of the brain process positive interactions we have with other people. What links them is that they all can ‘take in’ oxytocin. There isn’t one, simple piece of the brain that embodies this calming, connection system. Pepperdine University psychologist Louis Cozolino has named the group of structures, the “social brain.” That is a simple and effective way of thinking of it.
There’s a unique and very important aspect to the social brain. Uvnas-Moberg points out that nerve cells that release oxytocin tend to create a positive feedback loop. If one cell releases some oxytocin, the cells around it will begin to release it as well. Additionally, the more oxytocin that’s circulating, the more others cells release too.
What seems to happen in the brain is that when we get a positive signal like a smile from someone, the hypothalamus releases a small amount of oxytocin into the brain. This oxytocin stimulates cells in the social brain to release still more oxytocin.
Oxytocin calms down the activity of the amygdala, reducing fear and anxiety and helping us to respond to the other person (Kuchinskas, 2009).
In humans, oxytocin is released during hugging and pleasant physical touch. It plays a part in the human sexual response cycle. It appears to change the brain signals related to social recognition via facial expressions, perhaps by changing the firing of the amygdala, the part of the brain that plays a primary role in the processing of important emotional stimuli. In this way, oxytocin in the brain may be a potent mediator of human social behavior (Kain 2008).
Reporter Maia Szalavitz wrote an article in the May 2008 edition for the journal New Scientist. In the article she states, “Oxytocin’s ability to connect social contact with feelings of pleasure and well-being has got researchers excited about potential therapeutic uses, since so many mental illnesses involve disorders of sociability or empathy. An obvious starting point is autism, which is marked by difficulty understanding the minds of others, aversion to human contact, and repetitive behaviors such as rocking”.
According to the article, Eric Hollander of Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, is studying what happens when oxytocin is given to autistic adults. He found that a single intravenous infusion produced improvements that lasted two weeks (Biological Psychiatry, vol. 61, p.498).
These statements and findings are also quite interesting when considering that Allan Schore in his seminal text on attachment, Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self, references a study by Taylor, et al. 1998 that affect dysregulation is considered to be a fundamental mechanism involved in all psychiatric disorders!
Oxytocin coordinates both the causes and effects of positive social interactions. During social interactions, oxytocin can be released by sensory stimuli perceived as positive, including touch, warmth and odors. The consequences of positive social interactions, such as reduced sympathoadrenal activity and enhanced parasympathetic-vagal activity, also may be mediated by oxytocin. Because the release of oxytocin can become conditioned to emotional states and mental images, the actions of this peptide may provide an additional explanation for the long-term benefits of positive experiences (Moberg 1998).
The Atlanta Center for the Study of Disease (1996) estimated that more than eighty percent of diseases are related to stress. To state this differently, if you listed all the conditions and diseases related to stress or aggravated by stress, you’d have to list nearly every known condition. Oxytocin is the “anti-stress” hormone. By easing stress, oxytocin supports the healing of all stress related conditions. (Robinson, 2008)