The Untold World of Oxytocin, Stress, and Life Adversity

oxytocinOxytocin is not just a “love” or “cuddle” hormone – it is a powerful anti-stress hormone that lowers cortisol, blood pressure, and more.

It turns out that oxytocin works alongside stress hormones to help maintain homeostasis during times of stress and inflammation (1; 2).

Textbooks typically refer to oxytocin as a bonding hormone that is released during breastfeeding, or after an orgasm. But there are many other triggers of oxytocin release such as warm temperature and touch, smells, sounds and other social cues (3; 4).

The release of oxytocin is also not limited to just the pituitary gland in the brain; it can be released from the uterus, ovaries, testes, blood vessels, and the heart (5).

As you can see, there’s a lot more to oxytocin than just love, sex and bonding.

Socially, oxytocin is known to dial down your fear response and increase your emotions of trust, empathy, and the urge to bond with others. Its wider array of activity is suggested to be related to its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties (6).  It may also help modulate pain perception (7).

When you lose relationships or do not adequately maintain your social networks, your oxytocin balance may be disrupted – putting yourself at higher risk for the inflammatory effects of stress and fear.

Stress itself is not necessarily negative – Facing stress without a support network around you can be very inflammatory to your health.

Oxytocin may demonstrate the missing link between why the same stress can be both good and bad depending one’s social circumstances.

“Tend and Befriend” versus “Fight or Flight”

Typically when we think of stress, we think of cortisol, but there is now evidence that in some stressful situations, oxytocin is released along with cortisol – initiating a “tend and befriend” response to stress, as opposed to a traditional “threat” or “fight or flight” response.

The “tend and befriend” response is mediated by oxytocin and natural opioids produced by the body and may also have unique interactions with female hormones. While aspects of the stress response are shared among males and females, the female response to stress more closely follows a “tend and befriend” profile (8; 9).

From an evolutionary perspective, tending or nurturing oneself and offspring as well as befriending others and expanding and maintaining social networks is advantageous. Social isolation on the other hand, is largely a predictor of disease and poor quality of life (10).

Benjamin Franklin – who was as well-known for his social adeptness as he was for his civic and engineering – once remarked “Man is a sociable being, and it is, for aught I know, one of the worst punishments to be excluded from society.”

The active nurturing of relationships among family, friends, and your greater social network is important for a number of health outcomes – the interactions being driven by the interplay of inflammation, stress hormones, and oxytocin (11). These findings may help explain why some psychiatric disorders occur more commonly in one sex over another, and this new understanding may help improve treatment approaches (12).

The “Goldilocks Effect” of Adversity

Too little adversity AND too much adversity may disrupt oxytocin balance, while experiencing just enough stress helps to maintain oxytocin balance.

Oxytocin may underlie certain mechanisms as to why facing adversity early in life may both help or hinder coping mechanisms later in life (13). The researchers Seery, Holman and Silver looked at accumulated life adversity and its effect on various health outcomes (14). Their published work in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology revealed a “U-shaped” curve of adverse health outcomes.

The “U-curve” reflected that both too little and too much adversity can negatively affect health and social outcomes, while facing moderate adversity actually helps to strengthen health outcomes.

Those who experienced moderate levels of adversity had lower rates of depression, less post-traumatic stress symptoms, and higher reports of life satisfaction.

Individuals who had earlier exposure to adversity were also the least affected by recent adverse events. The findings lent hard data to the old saying “What does not kill us, makes us stronger”.

How do We Promote Healthy Oxytocin Release?

It is one thing to understand that oxytocin is a missing hormonal link in our stress response, but how do we actually use these findings in our daily lives to ensure that our stress response is helpful rather than detrimental?

Stanford professor Kelly McGonigal, PhD shared a few strategies in her book The Upside of Stress– a highly repeated theme in her discussion was having a positive mindset regarding stress:

viewing a stressful situation as an opportunity to improve your skills, knowledge, or strengths makes it more likely that you will have a challenge response instead of a fight-or-flight response. This, in turn, increases the chance that you will learn from the experience

You can “choose” which hormonal profile a stressful event takes – by being mindful during it, and looking at the event as an opportunity to grow.

Additionally, reaching out to help others experiencing the same stress can be a useful strategy (15). There are a number of examples of how reaching out to others such as through volunteering, or providing disaster relief, can help one cope with a stress response even if they themselves were subjected to the emotional trauma or disaster event.

Even a 10-minute journaling exercise where you reflect on your core values and motivations, can change how you face stressful events. Ultimately, such a simple exercise like that could change someone’s life-long trajectory of academic performance, career success and more.

Giving your life events greater meaning through the making of aspirational goals, and the routine reflection on your core values allows you to cope better with the inevitable hiccups along the path of life. These strategies help to keep your life feeling connected to a greater, “we’re all in this together” purpose.

What shouldn’t I do if I want to keep my oxytocin nice and balanced?

Watch the news.

Interestingly, watching or reading news about stressful events is also one of the worst things you can do when it comes to stress. It is one of the most commonly reported triggers of stress, and; the habit of continually watching negative news has been suggested by research to lead to more feelings of stress than the stress felt by those who actually experienced the negative news being reported! We also often watch TV alone.

Watching TV exposes you to endless propaganda and marketing initiatives – all designed in one way or another to hinder your ability to make rational decisions and thoughts through priming, emotional triggers, and more.

And, guess what?

It works – even more so in those of us who think we are immune to it. The subconscious mind says “Yes!” to everything that comes across it, so be extremely careful of what you’re feeding it.

Whether you believe me or not, at least understand this next point.

Your mind subconsciously assesses every offer that comes across your mind, whether you want it to or not – and that processing alone depletes you of your daily willpower reserves.

The best strategies for coping with stress (and maintaining oxytocin balance) are as follows:

  • Exercising or playing sports
  • Praying or attending a religious service
  • Reading
  • Listening to music
  • Spending time with friends or family
  • Getting a massage
  • Going outside for a walk
  • Meditating or doing yoga
  • & Spending time with a creative hobby

The worst strategies?

  • Gambling
  • Shopping
  • Smoking
  • Drinking
  • Eating
  • Playing video games
  • Surfing the Internet
  • & Watching TV or movies for more than two hours.

What makes the first list so much better?

These activities promote the release of hormones like serotonin, GABA and, you guessed it, oxytocin.

The second list contains largely reward-centered activities which trigger dopamine release – and the hard-to-please anticipation of future reward. You feel good until the reward fails to come again, or the dopamine rush wears off. It leaves you feeling unsatisfied and unfulfilled.

You can notice that you actually feel isolated and “on edge” following these activities. That’s actually your brain being anxious for your next dopamine rush.

This is why the brain tends to push us toward the dopamine-yielding activities in the short-term even though we “know better” internally that the serotonin, GABA and oxytocin-yielding activities above will serve us much better..

What’s So Bad About Dopamine?

Dopamine has also been misunderstood. Most think of dopamine, as your “feel-good” reward hormone, and it is to a degree, but not for the reasons that you think.

Dopamine doesn’t lead directly to the experience of pleasure. It mediates the anticipation of pleasure – which is very different. The anticipation of pleasure is an important human emotion – because it drives motivational behavior.

I have found anticipation to be quite a dangerous emotion. In the anticipation of reward is a seed of disappointment if the event does not lead to the excitement you envisioned. On the other hand, the anticipation of disappointment can sometimes create a self-fulfilled prophecy – and you will actually find an otherwise pleasurable event to be disappointing.

The solution for anticipation is to strengthen mindfulness – this protects you from the anxiety of being too caught up in the future, and also protects you from the regret and depression that can come from being stuck in the past.

Your mindfulness muscles can be strengthened by meditation exercise for as little as 5 minutes a day over an 8 week period of time. If you were to choose just one habit to implement in your life – I would choose daily meditation of at least 5 minutes. This habit can include various forms of meditation such as deep breathing, yoga, and more.

The more you can habituate activities from the first list – the more balanced and stress-free you will feel – the less disrupted your oxytocin balance will be, and the less negative stress you will experience.

Instead, you will feel courageous, connected, supported, and you will be less likely to develop a range of inflammatory diseases over the course of your life.

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