As we move into the busy-ness, sometimes frenzy, of a holiday season, most of us earnestly seek the sense of connection, belonging and inner peace that can come from giving and receiving love and affection. Sharing the love, generosity and kindness that buoys and sustains us through times that could otherwise be lonely or disappointing.
What can be activated in our body-brains through that love and affection is oxytocin – the naturally occurring neurotransmitter of “calm and connect,” of safety and trust, of bonding and belonging. Oxytocin is the neurochemical foundation of trust and connection. When the oxytocin is flowing throughout our system, when we again feel safe and loved; “God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world.”
As Dan Goleman says in Social Intelligence, “Repeated exposures to the people with whom we feel the closest social bonds can condition the release of oxytocin, so that merely being in their presence, or even just thinking about them, may trigger in us a pleasant dose of the good feelings that this molecule bestows. Close, positive, long-term relationships may offer us a relatively steady source of oxytocin release; every hug, friendly touch, and affectionate moment may prime this neurochemical balm a bit.
The fast way to release oxytocin and come into a sense of connection and belonging is through safe touch and warmth in a soothing relationship. Any warm, loving touch-hugs, snuggles, holding hands, partner dancing, cuddles with a pet, massage, or body work-can trigger the release of oxytocin and bring the body back into a state of calm and peacefulness. Even our own touch, as a reminder of the touch of others, can have this result.
Researchers have demonstrated that a single exposure to oxytocin can create a lifelong change in the brain. The exercises below offer ways to intentionally activate the release of this neurochemical balm.
Exercise 1: Head Rubs
One fun way to trigger oxytocin release is a gentle, two-minute head rub. You can massage your own head, of course, and you can easily practice this exercise with a partner, friend, or coworker, sensual without being sexual. Use your fingers to gently massage the scalp, forehead, nose, jaws, and ears. The touch, warmth, movement releases the oxytocin in your brain, lowering your blood pressure and calming your racing thoughts. These brief moments of safe and loving touch give you a few moments’ respite from stress and pressure, priming you to cope more resiliently with the next stressor that comes along.
Exercise 2: Massaging the Vagus Nerve
The vagus nerve, loaded with oxytocin receptors, resides in the brain stem. You can easily locate that region by placing your fingers at the back of your skull where the top of your neck nestles into the skull. A gentle massage to that part of the neck (you can easily do this yourself) can be a potent trigger for the release of oxytocin, increasing feelings of goodness and well-being throughout the day.
Exercise 3: Hugs
Stan Tatkin at UCLA has found that when people feel safe with one another, a twenty-second, full-body hug is enough to release oxytocin in both men and women. Most of us don’t feel comfortable with a full-body hug with anyone except a partner, immediate family, or closest friends. We do the A-frame hug of arms around the shoulders at best. The closeness of a full-body hug maximizes the effectiveness, so exchange a full-body hug with somebody you’re comfortable with as often as you can. Twenty seconds is about three long, deep breaths, easy for you and your hug-ee to time on your own. Try changing head positions with each breath. Enjoy many opportunities to exchange hugs as you move into the holidays – the holy days of love, peace, community.