Like most other animals on our earth we survived by being part of a pack. Our biology evolved to encourage us to work together, to be a clan. In other words, we’re supposed to be together.
Our body is a complex system: brain, spinal cord, nervous system and hormones all playing a part in sending us messages for survival. Our body communicates to us using hormones and it uses one in particular to drives us to reproduce, to stay safe and to work together. It’s called oxytocin.
Oxytocin is sometimes called the love hormone, as it is secreted in our bodies at times of great connection like hugging, orgasm and childbirth. It is produced in your hypothalamus (an area deep within your brain) and is the hormone associated with empathy, trust, sexual activity, and relationship-building.
Oxytocin makes us feel those gorgeous feelings of love, connection, community. It’s the yummy feeling we get when we’re with someone we care about. When they body makes oxytocin, it sets off a chain in which serotonin is also created, which is a major antidepressant.
From and evolutionary perspective, the secretion of these feel good chemicals make sense. When we are engaging in activities that ensure our survival (like reproduction and togetherness) our body lets us know by feeling good.
Likewise, if we are isolated, disconnected or alone for too long, the body lets us know by feeling bad.
Isolation, anxiety and depression
It is the absence of these chemicals that result in us feeling bad. If we feel bad for long enough, it will likely develop into anxiety and depression. Many recent studies have reported that social isolation is a leading cause of anxiety. This could be because oxytocin is extremely difficult to produce when you are on your own.
As the incidence of anxiety disorders continue to rise dramatically, perhaps the right question to ask is, why are we feeling so alone? Even when we are physically in the presence of others, many of us still feel like we’re not connected. This could be because we fear rejection, so we don’t want to risk feeling vulnerable and exposed.
Carl Jung said, “loneliness is not the absence of people, it isthe absence of connection with people”. What this means is that for the body to create healthy levels of oxytocin, we need to feel relaxed, connected and in sync with others, and being in a state of fear is counterproductive to this process.
In addition, the body can become confused by social media. We have the sense that we are connected through our online communities, but we are not feeding the chemical and biological requirements of being physically in sync. Even though real relationships can be difficult and irritating, it is vital to our overall physical and mental well being to be together.
With that in mind, the new question is, how can we create the oxytocin we need?
Bessel Van Der Kolk (a leading psychiatrist and author of The Body Keeps the Score) says that one of the key ways to encourage oxytocin production is to get our body into sync with other bodies, literally. This can be an act as simple as everyone putting chairs out together for a dinner or gathering.
This is important when considering the fight against depression and anxiety. If you are depressed or anxious, you may have arrived at this state due to social fears around rejection. If you are afraid to speak and connect then these group physical activities are the path to recovery. Joining an art or yoga class can be particularly helpful as there is almost no need for social talking.
The point is, we don’t have to be in conversation to feel connected, we simply have to be together doing the same physical motions. This works better when we can be relaxed enough to be vulnerable, so if you’re feeling social anxious, start with the activities that feel safe to you.
Oxytocin for trust
The crazy thing is that once you start to produce more oxytocin you will actually feel more trust, and you will be more likely to engage in activities that will then produce more oxytocin. In this way social isolation is a bit of a downward cycle, where the oxytocin production of social interaction is an upward cycle.
I love this quote by Bessel Van Der Kolk, “If you feel safe and loved, your brain becomes specialised in exploration, play and cooperation: If you are frightened and unwanted, it specialises in managing feelings of fear and abandonment”.
Generating oxytocin through social interaction is a sure way to move toward play, exploration and connection with all beings, and from there, into a happy life.
If you’re feeling brave and want to try for yourself, here are a some of my favourite ideas for how we can increase the hormone oxytocin and combat feelings of anxiety and depression.
What better way to get your body in sync with another than to go in for a big wide hug? The longer the better, but remember you have to feel safe. Even though we are scared of touch, it works wonders and deep down, everyone wants the connection. Try telling people that you hug rather than shake hands and see what happens.
Share meals as often as you can. If you’re part of a family, resist the urge to eat alone, or with TV. Instead, sit together and share the food consciously: talking and looking at one another. If you’re single, try organising dinners or inviting people over.
GIVE YOUR FULL ATTENTION
When you’re with someone really listen to them. Make eye contact. If you’re afraid of connecting, then listening deeply and asking questions is a great way to keep your fears at bay.
GIVE A GIFT
Ever felt that warm glow in your chest when you give someone a birthday present or buy them dinner? Yep that’s your body telling you that gifts are a beautiful way to connect and create community.
WATCH A GAME
Cheering for a sports team can make us feel like we’re back in a clan. If you can’t find one to physically attend, then watching your football team on TV can boost your oxytocin levels too.
CUDDLE A PET
It doesn’t have to be a human body that you need to sync with, you can match up to an animal too. Walking, petting or playing with a pet is a great way to feel connected and loved.
JOIN A GROUP
As mentioned earlier, you can join a formal group, like a sports team, yoga class, art class, or book club. This is an excellent way to be together without a lot of pressure.