Over the course of a year (according to British Household Panel Survey Data), the life event that gives the largest boost to wellbeing in a person’s life is the start of a new relationship. More than money. More than new things. More than anything else, it’s other people (and our connections with them) that give us the largest boost in health and happiness. Positive relationships with other people matter enormously.
It very likely begins with oxytocin, which is the chemical that is released into our bodies and brains when we connect with someone we are fond of. Oxytocin is a neuropeptide that is most closely associated with feelings of love and social bonding. It is released into our systems by touch, warmth and empathy. It has also been shown to be very good for one’s health, improving digestion, growth, mood and healing.
Yet to understand why Oxytocin is so good for us, it’s instructive to begin with what we know to be bad for us. And that is stress.
When we are stressed, we are primed for two outcomes - fighting or fleeing. Our bodies become filled with a quick jolt of adrenaline and cortisol, instructing our muscles to act quickly. In the process, our body re-directs energy away from unnecessary actions (like digestion and healing) in order to release all available energy into the fight. It’s a very helpful response when it’s critically needed. But it wasn’t designed to be a regular place we find ourselves in. Too much time being stressed can wear down the body’s resources.
The stress response is critical for survival - but it's far from the only survival strategy we have. To survive, humans also require the support of other humans. We are social - not solitary - animals. Social animals who require the acceptance, protection and generosity of a community of other humans. And to do this well - to make new friends and share techniques for better living - we need to feel drawn to others. Constantly fighting and fleeing are not useful for the day-to-day necessities of life.
Enter oxytocin, which is released in our bodies when our brains know us to be in a place safe enough to slow down and connect with others. When oxytocin is released into the body, our blood pressure is reduced. Digestive processes are helped. Wounds heal more quickly. We are calmer and more inclined to social interaction, trust and generosity. If adrenaline and cortisol move us into the ‘Fight or Flight’ response, oxytocin nudges us into a state that could be labelled ‘Stay and Play”, where our bodies can slow down enough to nourish themselves and their relationships, strengthening these resources for the future.
Oxytocin gives us the motivation to want to connect with others, make new friends and give others the benefit of the doubt. It is likely the biochemical substrate of what psychologist Barbara Fredrickson describes as the crucial act of ‘broadening and building’ our social networks. As the theory goes, during good times, positive emotions help us to build up goodwill with others. This goodwill, in turn, can see us through more vulnerable times when we need to rely on the generosity and kindness of friends and family. In a social group, where neighbours rely on neighbours, positive bonds and the social warmth they induce are what keeps the community going through both good times and bad.
If there were one neurochemical that seems to associated extensively with Motherhood, it is also oxytocin. Both labor and breastfeeding are characterised by notable spikes of oxytocin in the blood stream. The acts of holding and nurturing a new baby are filled with opportunities for producing oxytocin in a new Mother. Skin-to-skin contact, warmth, empathy and compassion for your baby throughout the early weeks and months are also all rich sources.
It has been noted that key aspects of the personality of breastfeeding women (who experience regular surges in oxytocin during the letdown reflex) change within days after the birth of their children, with the women studied displaying notably more calmness and sociability. This makes sense, given findings that oxytocin increases social contact in many animal species, and works hand in hand with social support to offer the excellent protection against stressful occurrences in human subjects.
Oxytocin helps our bodies rest, heal and calm down, all the while encouraging us to reach out and strengthen our bonds with others. When are feeling worn out, run down, and in need of support, how good would a little dose of oxytocin be? And how instructive is it to know that our bodies agree, providing us with many opportunities in early parenthood to cuddle up, calm down and recharge?
As Mothers, our days can tire us out. But our connections with those we love, and the oxytocin this produces, can be our best antidote. When you are worn out - reach out. Its one of the simplest and most effective antidotes to stress we have.
Supporting academic papers:
Ballas, D., & Dorling, D. (2007). Measuring the impact of major life events upon happiness. International Journal of Epidemiology, 36, 1244-1252.
Fredrickson, B. L. (2003). The value of positive emotions: The emerging science of positive psychology is coming to understand why it’s good to feel good. American Scientist, 91, 330-335.
Heinrichs, K. Baumgarner, T., Kirschbaum, C. Ehlers, U. (2003) Biological Psychiatry, 54, 1389-1398.
Kosfield et al. (2005) Oxytocin increases trust in humans, NATURE, 673-676
Nissen, E., Uvna ̈s-Moberg, K., Svensson, K., Stock, S., Widstrom, A. M. and Winberg, J. (1996) Different patterns of oxytocin, prolactin but not cortisol release during breastfeeding in women delivered by caesarean section or by the vaginal route. Early Human Development 45, 103–118.
Nissen, E., Gustavsson, P., Widstrom, A. M. and Uvna ̈s-Moberg, K. (1998) Oxytocin, prolactin and cortisol levels in response to nursing in women after Sectio Caesarea and vaginal delivery-relationship with changes in personality patterns post partum. Journal of Psychosomatic Obstetrics and Gynaecology 19, 49–58.
Petersson, M., Alster, P., Lundeberg, T. and Uvna ̈s-Moberg, K. (1996a) Oxytocin causes a long-term decrease of blood pressure in female and male rats. Physiology and Behavior 60, 1311–1315.
Uvnas-Moberg, K. (1998) Oxytocin mediates the benefits of positive social interactions and emotions. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 23, 8, 819-855.
Uvnas-Moberg, K., Ahlenius, S., Hillegaart, V. and Alster, P. (1994) High doses of oxytocin cause sedation and low doses cause an anxiolytic-like effect in male rats. Pharmacology Biochemistryand Behavior 49, 101–106.
Uvnas-Moberg, K., Bruzelius, G., Alster, P. and Lundeberg, T. (1993) The antinociceptive effect of non-noxious sensory stimulation is partly mediated through oxytocinergic mechanisms. Acta Physiologica Scandinavica 149, 199–204.
Widstrom, A. M., Wahlberg, V., Matthiesen, A. S., Eneroth, P., Uvnas-Moberg, K., Werner, S. and Winberg, J. (1990) Short-term effects of early suckling on maternal behaviour and breast-feeding performance. Early Human Development 21, 153–163.