3 Ways Connection Protects and Heals the Body and Soul
My niece had asked me to become her so-called doula. By the time I arrived at the hospital, the new addition to the family had arrived already. The baby had come four weeks early, but the nurses were ready, preparing her for the new world. The newborn was hungry; so they fed her as my niece gradually recovered from the anesthesia. But once awakened, they were adamant that my niece hold her baby and make the “skin-to-skin” connection—the bonding process. The newborn needed connection and love to feel safe in the cold, sterile room outside the warm womb that had incubated her for eight months. This same connection protects and heals the body and soul throughout our lifetime but only now do we understand the role the neuro-hormone oxytocin plays in forming connections, especially as we age.
Oxytocin is dubbed the “love hormone” or the “cuddle hormone.” It is produced in the brain by the hypothalamus and released by the posterior pituitary. The neuro-hormone plays a role in social bonding, sexual reproduction, childbirth, and the period after childbirth, which affect our health and well-being.
When we are low in oxytocin, we are low in empathy. In other words, we feel disconnected. Could this neuro-hormone hold the key to solving our loneliness epidemic? Forty-three percent of seniors feel lonely on a regular basis and forty-five percent of seniors who report feeling lonely are at an increased risk of mortality, states a report by the Health Resources and Services Administration, an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Empathy, which is allowing ourselves to feel what another person is feeling, drives connection. It is not sympathy, which is feeling sorry for someone.
Healing in times of distress
So when we are feeling stressed, this neuro-hormone compels us to seek out someone to talk or to share what we are feeling. “When life is difficult, your stress response wants you to be surrounded by people who care about you,” says Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist. Being able to talk to a friend, a therapist, a support group or sometimes a mere stranger can bring tremendous healing when they are empathetically listening. They are able to feel what you are feeling. In today’s vernacular, ‘they get you,’ not necessarily agreeing with you, but they understand you, and so they are able to connect with you in a powerful way. This connection brings feelings of warmth and healing, increasing oxytocin in the bloodstream by knowing you have been listened to.
Protection when stressed
Oxytocin also protects the body when it is under stress. Blood pressure and cortisol levels are reduced, producing anti-stress-like effects. This reaction by the body protects the cardiovascular system, especially the heart, which has “receptors for this hormone, and oxytocin helps heart cells regenerate and heal from any stress-induced damage,” McGonigal explains. So, the next time you are feeling stressed have a cup of tea or coffee with a friend or see a therapist.
There is nothing like having a face-to-face conversation with someone. But when having a conversation is not possible or is simply challenging, the next best thing might be a telephone call, especially if you are lonely and socially isolated.
The Friendship Line is toll-free telephone service offered to adults 60 years and over and to adults living with physical disabilities. According to the Friendship Line website, it is a “crisis intervention hotline and a warmline for non-urgent calls.” The website also touts that it is the only program nationwide that reaches out to lonely, depressed, isolated, frail and/or suicidal older adults.
Spirituality and Oxytocin Effect
Dilip V. Jeste, a geriatric neuropsychiatrist, identifies five components of wisdom: empathy, compassion; self-reflection; ability to make good decisions; acceptance of uncertainty and ambiguity; and spirituality. He defines spirituality as recognizing that “you are part of a much larger story and universe, one in which you are accepted and accepting of others.” Spirituality like empathy has an oxytocin connection.
In a study involving only male participants, some were given oxytocin via a nasal spray and the others a placebo. Those who were given the oxytocin showed increased in spirituality and were more inclined to see themselves related to “interconnectedness, specifically those targeting belief in larger meaning and purpose in life.” Whether it’s a cause, nature, Higher Power, or God, spirituality can boost oxytocin levels by giving us a sense of interconnectedness to life and people around us.
How Can You Increase your Level of Oxytocin
My husband and I had lunch with a couple we had recently met at the gym. I was surprised that Dan, the friend we had just met, described himself as an introvert and a home-body because he was so loquacious. Then, I was surprised again when he said he had told his wife that he wanted them to make it a point to meet new couples. I realized Dan was being intentional about making connections, especially new ones.
As we become older, we have to be intentional just like Dan about our connections and making new ones as we begin to lose loved ones or friends. Loss comes with life.
So let’s be encouraged to nurture our current relationships and make new ones. We now know that connections drive oxytocin and an increase of oxytocin protects the health of our bodies and brings healing to our souls.