Happy (belated) Valentine’s Day from everyone at the Trauma Research Foundation! Whether you’re celebrating in company or alone, we hope you are able to give your Self some love and compassion today.
What comes to your mind when you think of Valentine’s Day? Traditionally it’s thought of as a time that celebrates love – gifts and gestures are given, and we show our appreciation to our loved ones. However, if you experience the symptoms of PTSD or trauma, it can be challenging; compliments or affection, may not feel safe, regardless of intention. Part of healing is to learn to be present in the moment with what comes up. We offer this opportunity to notice love and compassion of our own via this blog.
What do you think love is? This question has been explored extensively by philosophers, psychologists, researchers, poets, and many more for thousands of years. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “a feeling or disposition of deep affection or fondness for someone.” However, is love purely mental? Or is there a chemical cause? Many researchers have touted oxytocin as the ‘love hormone’ – we will explore why they say this.
I’ll admit that before this blog, my experience of researching oxytocin was minimal. I recall one of my friends in college participating in a trial whereby he had to inhale oxytocin, then see how trustworthy he found people’s faces. Oddly enough, he told me he had strong paternal urges for around an hour following the experiment!
We have all experienced the effects of oxytocin at some point in our lives. The fuzzy warm feeling that you get when you hug someone, pet an animal, or share food can all be attributed to oxytocin. Technically, it’s a peptide hormone and is produced by our hypothalamus. It helps us to regulate our emotional response and pro-social behaviours, including empathy, trust, bonding cues, and positive communication. It has also been shown to reduce amygdala activity. It is not just the hormone of romantic love – it fosters all connection. Interestingly, one trial found that individuals who had oxytocin administered to them were more likely to lie for the communal benefit of their study group!
One of the presenters for the 32nd Annual Boston International Trauma Conference, world renowned oxytocin researcher, Sue Carter, says it’s the hormone that makes us human, and makes our collaborative interactions possible. As she explains in the video, oxytocin allows us to come into physical, rhythmic synchrony. She explains that oxytocin is part of what makes human language possible.
In her article, Love as Embodied Medicine, she opens with the following:
“As a sentient species, humans are on the threshold of novel insights into the origins of the magnificent obsession we call “love.” It is well established that healthy relationships can protect against disease, and restore the body in the face of illness. Without positive relationships, especially in early life, humans fail to flourish, even if all of their basic needs are met. “Love lost” is one of the most powerful forms of stress and trauma…
… Insight into the mechanisms through which love protects and restores requires awareness of mammalian evolution and neurobiology. The new science of love allows us to say that the causes and consequences of love – or its absence – are grounded in an ancient biology that operates largely below the level of human consciousness. To bring these questions into scientific focus required uncovering a kind of organic Rosetta Stone. We needed to find another creature that shared with humans the capacity for something that resembled “love.”
Studies show the strong role oxytocin plays in our mental health. One study stated that it showed promise in the treatment of mental health conditions such as “depression, anxiety disorders, and schizophrenia.” Another study on post-traumatic stress disorder showed that oxytocin helped men to describe emotions related to traumatic events, rather than only talking about the physical processes. Emotionally coming to terms with trauma is critical in healing – dissociation is one of the most common features in trauma survivors.
So far, oxytocin sounds like it could be the new wonder drug for trauma treatment! However, there are a few barriers to its pharmaceutical use. It does not cross the blood-brain barrier very well, and it only has a half-life of between two to five minutes. This limits our potential for using synthetic oxytocin in a mental health setting. However, our bodies are good at producing oxytocin, and there are certain activities we can engage in to promote this.
Many factors contribute to oxytocin release. It plays a large role in giving birth and breastfeeding and is released in high levels when we engage in sexual activity. Of course, these means of production rule out a certain percentage of the population. It also precludes those who do not have a typical reaction to sex, as many trauma survivors do. However, there are many other ways that we can increase our levels of oxytocin naturally. You don’t need to be in a relationship, have a child, or even be physically close to other people.
One study found that people who practiced yoga for a month had higher oxytocin levels than those from the control group. Both listening to and a making your own music has been shown to increase oxytocin levels. Some other ways you can increase your levels are:
That doesn’t mean it’s always easy, or that these things will be helpful for everyone. For example, for varying reasons, people who’ve experienced trauma may find direct or prolonged eye-contact uncomfortable, or even triggering. So many people are still isolating because of COVID-19, and for those who are, most social interactions are done through screens. Research shows that interaction through messaging apps does not produce the same oxytocin release as in-person conversations. However, video calls have been directed to release a certain amount, albeit lower than in-person communication. It’s been inspiring to see people’s resilience and dedication to bonding with one another. We have seen all sorts of novel ways to bond via this medium, from virtual pizza cook offs to board game gatherings to grandparents having birthday parties with their grandchildren.
As many businesses move away from traditional office-based roles and into remote working, this raises questions about how a future of video-call meetings will impact us neurologically. It is interesting that in most video calls, we don’t make eye contact. When looking at a screen to look at people’s faces, we’re not looking at our webcams to make that contact back. We would be very interested to hear your opinions and musings on the matter!
However, there are simple ways to enhance oxytocin levels that are available to everyone. We are all capable of altruism – it could be the smallest thing. It could be holding a door open for someone, cooking a meal for someone (if you live alone, you could donate some food to a shelter), or offering to listen to someone (check out our peer counselling program). It may be that slow breathing with mindful self-holding— hand on heart and hand on chest can help instill calm, self-compassion and sensations of safety in the present moment. If you have a story of how you’re celebrating connection this Valentine’s Day, we’d love to hear from you.
Guest Blogger, Niall,
Licia, and the Team at Trauma Research Foundation
 International Body Psychotherapy Journal The Art and Science of Somatic Praxis Volume 18, Number 1, Spring 2019 pp 19 - 25.
ISSN 2169-4745 Printing, ISSN 2168-1279 Online
© Author and USABP/EABP. Reprints and permissions [email protected]
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