The chemistry of feeling good, and actually, the antidote to depression is the hormone and neurotransmitter OXYTOCIN. That famous Beatles song – All you need is Love ….. well really it is all we need!!!
But without being airy-fairy and esoteric about it ….. that really is the truth. By looking at the neurochemistry of our brains and how certain processes are triggered or suppressed, we get a glimpse into the reality of how it all unfolds….
The brain and brain-chemistry is highly complex, yet there is a process, which for the sake of this piece of writing, can be presented in a simple way to illustrate this idea of how Love really is all we need. But I am going to include some other words as part of the LOVE word along the way: compassion, kindness, gratitude.
Oxytocin used to only be associated with birth and breastfeeding. Oxytocin is the hormone/neurotransmitter that causes the uterus to contract for birth and for milk to be produced by the breasts. However, we now know that Oxytocin is found in men and women and has many other functions beyond the above mentioned marvels.
Oxytocin has also been linked to the Placebo effect. The idea is that when you buy into something you will trust and believe that it will work and indeed, it more than likely does work. This holds true for the importance of the relationship we have to something or with a practitioner/therapist. What this tells us is that Oxytocin/trust/belief are closely related and intertwined with each other.
So simply, when we are babies, our very vulnerable existence is carefully set up for survival. As the baby’s body detects a drop in the blood-glucose levels, it triggers the system to raise the alarm. The Amygdala, the little almond-sized areas of the brain, are triggered by rising levels of adrenaline and noradrenaline (same compound but one is secreted by the adrenal glands and the other by the nerve endings).
The alarm system says: “fear, anxiety, stress….glucose levels dropping, need to be replenished….I need food”. Adrenaline and noradrenaline are released to get the baby to alert the caregiver that there is a need – hunger – and so the baby cries. When the care-giver responds, the reward is that dopamine (our feel-good hormone) is released as well as Oxytocin. Baby feels satisfied. Need has been met. Adrenaline and noradrenaline levels drop.
Through this process the baby learns about empathy and trust and when this is experienced more Oxytocin is released. Oxytocin suppresses the amygdala, the alarm, and it quietens down as there is no more threat, no need for anxiety. Other concepts, part of this beautiful cycle, are the feeling of awe and belief. The chemistry produces the mindset and the mindset produces the chemistry. Once the cycle of Oxytocin is set in motion it will continue to function like this, unless thwarted and interfered with by high or ongoing levels of stress.
As adults we can have a rise in adrenaline and noradrenaline which is caused due to stress – a common, if not pandemic of the modern era. When we feel like we are at constant risk, constant threat or experience constant anxiety, the response is to produce more adrenaline and noradrenaline. This keeps our amygdala shouting the warning of fear, threat, anxiety which in turn causes more adrenaline to be produced. We can become locked into our own amygdala! Think road rage – we feel threatened by another’s driver’s infringement on our rights or threatening our safety. Adrenaline rises, amygdala takes over. When the brain is flooded by adrenaline, it shuts down the prefrontal cortex which is responsible for rational thought and clear thinking. Which is why in a road rage incident there is no clear thinking! Only amygdala’s driving it and responding! No rational thinking happening here!
The antidote to this cycle? Yip, you guessed it – OXYTOCIN! Oxytocin suppresses the amygdala, pro-inflammatory cytokines being produced and suppresses cortisol production (the last two beyond the scope of these pages….for now…more on them in a later piece).
When we experience empathy, trust, belief and awe we stimulate the release of oxytocin. Therefore, when you are an empathic individual: showing empathy and prosocial behaviour towards others, you in essence are correcting your own brain chemistry. If this is not proof that we are meant to love, show compassion, live in kindness and connect deeply with others, then I am not sure what else could be!
From our conception we are wired to feel good through doing for others. UBUNTU springs to mind again! This doing-good for others is not motivated in any way by self-gain nor is it motivated for recognition, which is all ego driven. Service to others is also not motivated by self-esteem or lack thereof nor any other ego-driven or self-centered motive. It is motivated from the place of: I believe that I am part of something bigger and truly desire to make valuable contributions to the world and others around me. It has true benevolent and altruistic awareness.
Research has shown that if you can help someone then they will, in turn, go onto help someone they encounter. This is the idea of paying it forward! And so we can begin a beautiful world through one kind deed. Interesting investigation into this area: the power-of–doing-for-others, has revealed that when we give empathy it is the same as empathy received! That is profound, that by being kind and compassionate to others we effect or our own brain chemistry positive and uplifting ways.
GRATITUDE is empathy received.
There are some very simple things we can do to get our Oxytocin production to increase in order to balance brain chemistry and feel better, stimulated by:
- Eating and drinking (slowly, mindfully and healthily of course!), and usually we eat with others which enhances the experience
- The digestive process
- The process of elimination – yip you got it – why a visit to the loo can be cathartic!
- Sexual stimulation
- Stroking and massaging
- Empathy, Trust, Belief, Awe, Compassion
- Volunteering your time/skills for others for the sheer joy of doing so and no one else knowing about it
- Practicing gratitude every day
So when you are feeling bad, anxious, lonely …. Find a community centre, old-age home, orphanage, animal rescue facility or NGO, perhaps a friend who is struggling or a neighbour who is lonely…… visit, ask how you may help ….. Hello Oxytocin!
I encourage you to do more reading and research in this area – much has been written about this. A word of caution – read reputable journal articles!