Oxytocin: the Neurochemical of Everything Good
When I taught about the role of the neurochemical oxytocin in healing relationships at the Community Institute for Psychotherapy last week, the “calm and connect” of oxytocin was flowing in the room (!) whether from the topic itself, the relational exercises, or the safety, humor and bonding interspersed with the serious research data and therapeutic interventions.
Oxytocin has been a favorite focus in this e-newsletter before. Oxytocin is the brain’s naturally occurring hormone of “tend and befriend” (Healing Heartache, Sept. 2008), the molecule of motherly love and attachment (The Neurobiology of Feeling Unlovable, Feb. 2009), the neuropeptide of safety and trust that is the direct and immediate antidote to “fight-flight-freeze.” (Stress and Trauma, March 2009)
This month’s e-newsletter focuses on five specific benefits of evoking the natural release of oxytocin in our body-brains and many practical exercises to cultivate our capacities to do so. May these offerings help reverse and prevent the stress response in your life, and generate the feelings of deep connection essential to our resilience and well-being.
REFLECTIONS on Oxytocin: The Neurochemical of Everything Good
Oxytocin is a naturally occurring neurochemical,(sometimes called a neuropeptide or a neurotransmitter, produced in the hypothalamus deep in the mid-brain) that acts like a hormone in our bodies, meaning it crosses the blood-brain barrier and circulates in the blood steam as well as in the brain, to regulate the arousal level of our nervous system. Oxytocin is released through touch, warmth, and affectionate connection. Classic examples of connections that release oxytocin are breastfeeding and orgasm, both of which can generate a blissful, other-worldly sense of contentment, “everything is all right.”
But any warm, loving, touch can release oxytocin – hugs, snuggles, holding hands, partner dancing, massage and body work. Neuroscience has confirmed, because of how our brains process information, even thinking about someone who loves us or someone we deeply care for is enough to activate the release of oxytocin in the brain. Which is very good news as we learn to use the relax and repair quality of oxytocin to re-pair and heal old relational wounds with new experiences of safe and affectionate connection.
Benefit #1: Oxytocin directly and immediately reverses our body’s response to stress.
Lisa is yelling at her husband Andy in my office. “You never talk to me anymore! I’m sick and tired of you never saying anything! You’re like a brick wall!” Andy sits frozen on the couch, staring at his hands helplessly.
I quickly ask them, right there in session, to do what I know will calm Lisa down and re-engage Andy in less than a minute.
“Stop! Breathe. B-r-e-a-t-h-e. Place your hand on your heart. Breathe any calm you can muster right down into your heart center. Let yourself relax into that calm. Now remember any moment you can of safety, trust, love with each other, any moment at all. Get the felt sense of that memory in your body. Feel the love and the trust in your body. Settle into it. Relax and breathe.”
In less than a minute Lisa feels calm enough, Andy feels safe enough, to re-engage in the work they know they need to do to create the new patterns of trust, connection and intimacy that will save a fragile marriage.
The invisible but essential ingredient in that intervention was oxytocin. Oxytocin is just one of the many neurochemicals modern brain science is discovering are potent catalysts of psycho-physiological change in our body-brain. Oxytocin is one of the most relevant for healing relational distress because it is the neurochemical basis for the felt sense of safety and trust that instantly antidotes the stress response of fight-flight-freeze.
Whenever someone like Lisa gets stressed out, volatile, escalating into an argument, the stress hormone cortisol coursing through her body has revved up her sympathetic nervous system up out of her window of tolerance (where we normally like to be – calm, relaxed, alert, engaged). She’s upset, ready to fight, can’t soothe herself enough to stay engaged with her husband and repair the hurt she’s experiencing in her relationship.
Whenever someone like Andy shuts down and withdraws, disconnecting and isolating for safety, he has constricted his sympathetic nervous system too much; he’s too remote, too beneath the window of tolerance to engage and repair with Lisa.
Oxytocin is one of the most effective tools we have in the toolkit for regulating the physiological arousal or dampening down of our nervous system. Oxytocin does this regulation both on a fast-track (sub-cortical, no conscious processing) and on a slow track (cortical, conscious processing.)
The fast-track way is through touch and warmth. Because there are neural cells around the heart, placing our hand on our heart and breathing deeply into our heart center activates the parasympathetic nervous system and begins to calm down the fight-flight arousal of the sympathetic nervous system. Because the vagus nerve connects the heart, lungs and gut with the cortex (our “higher” brain) placing our hand on our heart primes our brain to activate the release of oxytocin in the brain. Oxytocin is the neurochemical antidote to the cortisol that fuels the “fight-flight-freeze” response to any perceived threat or danger. When oxytocin cascades through our bloodstream, the calming parasympathetic branch of the nervous system puts the brakes on the activating sympathetic branch, quelling the fear response of the amygdala; cortisol levels plummet, blood pressure lowers; all is well. This is all in the sub-cortical limbic system: it does not have to go through conscious processing to happen.
The slow track way uses the social engagement system of our “higher” conscious brain to regulate our nervous system. Oxytocin is released whenever we are in loving contact with another human being. Dan Goleman writes in Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships, “Oxytocin generates a sense of satisfying relaxation. This brain chemical evokes the inner sense that everything is all right, possibly the biochemical basis for what Erik Erickson called a basic sense of trust in the world.”
In a heartbeat, even evoking a memory, an image, and then the felt sense of a moment of being with someone we feel safe with, love and cherished by, is enough to activate the release of oxytocin. Anyone, any time, can use the power of explicit memory or guided visualization to evoke the release of oxytocin, come out of a sense of withdrawal and loneliness into a sense of connection and belonging again. [See Exercises below to learn how to do this.]
Do we have to understand how oxytocin works as a neurochemical regulator of stress and emotional states for it to be effective? No, of course not. But I have found that knowing that it does work gives folks a sense of mastery and efficacy that can be quite empowering.
Andy reported in the next session that just two days before, Lisa had almost lost it running late getting their 4 year old son to pre-school. He was afraid saying anything would make matters worse, so he simply stood in the doorway where Lisa could see him with his hand on his heart. Lisa caught herself, stopped, met his gaze, and put her hand on her heart, too. Andy took one step toward Lisa; Lisa took three steps toward him. They melted into a 20-second, full body, “tend and be-friend” oxytocin-releasing hug, and then calmly got their son to school – on time – without further upset.
Benefit #2: Oxytocin creates a buffer against stress in the future
We can also use the oxytocin response to prime the brain to be less reactive to stress in the future, because the chemical cascade of oxytocin, evoked whenever we remember someone we care for or feel cared for by, acts as a buffer against stress even before it occurs.
Lisa and Andy have learned to use that 20-second full-body hug to prime their brains to release oxytocin before they sit down to have a heart-to-heart. Stan Tatkin at UCLA has found the 20-second full-body hug, when the couple feels safe enough with one another, is enough to release oxytocin in both men and women, putting a couple on the same loving hormonal wavelength for the time being. Twenty seconds is about three long, deep breaths, easy for a couple to time on their own, sometimes changing head positions with each breath. The full-body-ness of the hug maximizes the warmth of the touching; twenty seconds is enough to allow the couples’ defenses to “melt” as they relax into their healing hug.
Phil Shaver, in his Handbook on Attachment, reports on research he’s done at U.C. Davis, “priming” subjects’ brains to exhibit less reactivity to a disturbing event by thinking of someone they love or feel safe with first. Consistently, the oxytocin released in remembering a secure attachment figure acted as a buffer against a stressful trigger a few minutes later.
Sue Carter of the Chicago Psychiatric Institute, one of this country’s first researchers on oxytocin, says, “People under the influence of oxytocin don’t have the same stress response that others do; bad news rolls off them more easily.”[See exercises below to activate the release of oxytocin before stress occurs]
Benefit #3: Oxytocin helps activate the neuroplastiticity we need for learning and change
Oxytocin is the hormone of bonding and attachment; oxytocin creates the “neural cement” of the loving bond. Mega-doses in childbirth, breastfeeding, making love; smaller steady doses in every hug, friendly touch, and moment of affection.
The neural circuitry of this oxytocin-based bond, like everything else in the early brain development of the infant-child, develops in the interactions with our earliest caregivers, shaped by the parenting style of the parent. Lots of touch, warmth, safety, loving connection and attunement, this oxytocin response matures well. Less than optimal attachment, less than optimal conditioning, less than optimal development of this circuitry.
Lack of warmth and touch in a client’s earliest attachment relationships can de-rail the full maturation of oxytocin receptors in the brain. A deficiency in this “molecule of motherly love” makes it much harder for people to “feel” the love and trust available to them in other relationships later in life. And experiencing new, safe, loving connections later in life is what re-builds this oxytocin circuitry.
The safety and trust felt in the safe haven of a secure attachment relationship – the viscerally felt sense of connection and belonging – is what primes neural plasticity in the brain. When the toddler feels safe in its parents arms, it can risk leaving the nest and exploring the world, “taking in” and learning from new experiences.. When we as adults feel safe and supported by a trusted spouse, friends therapist, coach, teacher, we can take risks in the world and “take in” learning from new experiences.
Louis Cozolino notes in The Neuroscience of Human Relationships, “Oxytocin can evoke an inner sense of well-being that facilitates flexibility and openness to change.”
Well-known meditation teacher Sylvia Boorstein notes in Happiness is an Inside Job that she always makes sure she evokes a sense of love and belonging before she begins her practice of opening her mind to spacious awareness and inquiry. Safety makes it possible to open to the new and learn from it.
Benefit #4: Oxytocin heals wounding of previous relationships
Oxytocin is the hormone of relational repair. When we can experience in our bodies now a sense of safety and trust that allows us to take in a sense of connection and belonging now, we can begin to heal the hole in the heart from lack or loss of connection back then.
We are hardwired in our brainstem to respond with a separation distress response when we are suddenly cut off from a human connection we depend on for physical or psychological survival or emotional well-being. There are neural cells around the heart that are activated when we long to connect with another, which is why we feel a literal heartache when that yearning for connection is not met.
When our yearning for connection and love is met (and any safe, loving relationship can do this, with a best friend, a loving spouse or partner, a beloved child or pet, a loving grandparent or teacher in the third grade, a therapist, a spiritual figure like Jesus, the Dalai Lama, or Quan Yin),the relax and repair capacity of oxytocin begins to works it’s therapeutic magic.
One of my clients originally came to me with a horrendous generalized anxiety disorder. In our first session he reported the only way he could feel safe in this world was to imagine himself six feet underground before he had been born. Over time I learned one of the few places he actually had felt safe was in a spiritual community where he could surrender himself to practices of devotion and transcendence. This surrender was not escape or dissociation but a spiritual awakening supported by the oxytocin released by finding a safe haven in an accepting community. Over more time, he was able to experience similar safety with me, with his wife, with a growing circle of friends, to recover his capacities to trust and love others, to rely on trust and love from them.
Is this recovery of a sense of safety in connection, belonging and love easy or guaranteed? No. Is it possible, even after years of loneliness and depression? Yes. (See exercises to practice below.)
Benefit #5: Oxytocin helps “re-wire” our brain’s “rules” of relationship
Scientists are discovering that changing the neurochemical scripts in the brain primes the brain to alter its neuronal scripts as well. We can begin to “re-wire” the deep encoding of all of our habitual, often unconscious, patterns of feeling, dealing and relating when we “re-pair” old messages about self in relationship with new more oxytocin-based experiences of connection and love.
Bruce Ecker, in his article “The Brain’s Rules for Change” in the Jan.-Feb. 2010 Psychotherapy Networker, describes a mechanism of experience-driven neuroplasticity to do this re-pairing and re-wiring that oxytocin could be a key player in.
The mechanism is de-consolidation-re-consolidation. When we evoke a memory of a relational experience or trauma, we are activating the firing of the neuronal script of that memory when we do that. And if we “feel” the emotional-somatic sense of that memory in our bodies (which could include the neurochemical basis of that memory) the synaptic connections of that memory briefly unlock. The memory briefly, temporarily, deconsolidates before it reconsolidates itself again. (This is how memories change over time, even when we’re not doing anything to make them change.) If, at the split-second of deconsolidation, that memory is paired with a different experience that sharply contradicts or dis-confirms the original reactivated memory, the synapses of the old memory and the new experience will reconsolidate together. The new neural firing patterns quickly re-lock, but now the old memory is re-paired, re-wired with the new experience and returns to long-term memory changed.
If that new experience of our self in relationship is awash with oxytocin, if we “feel” safe and loved and cherished strongly enough in that split second of re-wiring, the more positive oxytocin-based sense of self in relationship will contradict and trump the old negative message or script. It will re-pair and re-wire in that moment. According to Ecker, this mechanism of healing relational trauma can be dramatically instant, and the effects can be dramatically permanent.
I saw this happen with Lisa and Andy. Near the end of their therapy with me, one evening out of the blue, Andy suddenly mentioned he wanted to take their son Jake camping next weekend – a boy’s getaway for Jakes’ 5th birthday. Lisa started to blow her top at her side of the family being forgotten again – Andy had promised to take her sister car shopping that same weekend.
Andy saw the train wreck that was about to happen. He asked Lisa what “script” was running in her head about her side of the family being forgotten. Lisa and I worked for a few minutes to get back to a memory of her own father “forgetting” to take Lisa and her sister to the movies, going out for a drink with his buddies instead.
As Lisa felt her way back into feeling not important, not loved, and could feel the sadness in her whole body that she didn’t matter, Andy was able to pull her into a hug and reassure here how much he loved he, how important she was to him. There was the moment, when Lisa said, “II don’t matter to you” and Andy could say, “Let yourself feel how much you matter to me, right here, right now.” I could almost see the re-wiring happen. Lisa paused, looked at Andy, and said very softly, “I matter to you; I matter.” Andy: “You have always mattered to me.” Lisa: “I have always mattered, I have always mattered. Even back then when I didn’t think I did. I’ve always mattered.”
The train wreck was averted and Lisa and Andy were able to negotiate their logistics for the weekend. More importantly, Lisa and Andy finished their therapy a few weeks later, Lisa knowing in her bones how much she mattered to Andy. They called me about six months later for something else and Lisa told me she had never doubted her mattering again after that moment.
POETRY AND QUOTES TO INSPIRE
A single exposure of oxytocin can create a lifelong change in the brain.
– Sue Carter, Chicago Psychiatric Institute, nation’s pioneer researcher in oxytocin
* * * * *
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.
– Dan Goleman, Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships
* * * * *
The happiest hours of my life have been spent in the flow of affection among friends.
– Thomas Jefferson
* * * * *
At the Corner Store (excerpt)
It was a new old man behind the counter,
skinny, brown and eager.
He greeted me like a long lost daughter,
as if we both came from the same world,
someplace warmer and more gracious than this cold city.
I was thirsty and alone. Sick at heart, grief-soiled
and his face lit up as if I were his prodigal daughter
coming back to the freezer bins in front of the register
which were still and always filled
with the same old Cable Car ice-cream sandwiches and
cheap frozen greens.
Back to the knobs of beef and package of hotdogs,
these familiar shelves strung with potato chips and corn chips,
stacked- up beer boxes and immortal Jim Beam.
I lumbered to the case and bought my precious bottled water
and he returned my change, beaming
as if I were the bright new buds on the just-bursting-open cherry trees,
as if I were everything beautiful struggling to grow,
and he was blessing me as he handed me my dime
over the dirty counter and the plastic tub of red licorice whips.
This old man who didn’t speak English
beamed out love to me in the iron week after my mother’s death
so that when I emerged from his store
My whole cockeyed life –
What a beautiful failure! –
Glowed gold like a sunset after rain.
– Alison Luterman
STORIES TO LEARN FROM
Oxytocin on the fast track to anti-dote stress
In a documentary film about Mother Teresa, I saw a two-minute segment of one of her nuns in a hospital in Beirut holding an 8 month old baby who had been injured in mortar fire. He was screaming and thrashing about, his eyes darting here and there in pain and terror. The nun was massaging his chest, cooing and calling to him until his eyes locked on hers. She continued gazing at him, massaging his heart, soothing him with her voice. In less than one minute his body relaxed; he calmed down; he steadied his gaze on hers. He was still injured, but he was safe, held, and calm.
Oxytocin on the slow track to antidote stress
In July 2003, I chose to have lasik eye surgery to correct lifelong near-sightedness and astigmatism. The operation is risky, so I went into the operation with considerable anxiety. I had asked friends to think of me on the day of the operation, at the time I was actually in surgery, so I felt resourced and not alone during the procedure. I had to remain conscious during the operation and focus my eyes on the light beam above me so the laser could track exactly where to remove the fluid in the eye which would re-shape the cornea and create the lens that would allow new 20-20 vision. So, while lying on the gurney staying as still as I could be, I thought of all my friends thinking of me, taking in the sense of love and caring I knew was being sent my way.
About 10 minutes into the operation, quite suddenly, all sense of anxiety ceased completely. I was flooded with a sense of love and belonging that was quite over-powering. There was nothing to be afraid of, nothing at all.
This serene peacefulness lasted until the surgery was finished. It lasted for the next 8 months. The oxytocin flooding my brain had signaled the pre-frontal cortex to quell the fear response of my amygdala (which it does, oxytocin is the brain’s primary agent to activate the regulatory response of the pre-frontal cortex to reverse or prevent a stress response.) All was well.
Oxytocin to buffer future stress
In a study done in Richard Davidson’s fMRI lab at the University of Wisconsin by J.A. Coan, women volunteers were given a slight but unpleasant electrical shock on their ankles while their brain responses of anxiety and pain were monitored in an fMRI scanner.
In the control group of women holding no one’s hand during the procedure, participants registered anxiety before and pain during the shock. In the group of women holding the hand of a stranger (the lab technician) during the procedure, the reactions of anxiety and pain were reduced somewhat. But in the group of women holding their husbands’ hands, the pleasurable security of holding the hand of someone who loved them (and the oxytocin thus released) down-regulated their stress and overrode both anxiety and pain. The women instead experienced peacefulness throughout the procedure.
Oxytocin to support secure attachment which supports learning and change
I hope you all have had a chance to see the oxytocin-saturated film The Blind Side based on a true story of a homeless, African-American teenage boy adopted by a loving family in Memphis, Tennessee. Sandra Bullock won the 2010 Oscar for best actress for her portrayal of Leigh Anne Tuohy, a fierce champion of her new son Michael Oher as he adjusted to life in a wealthy white family (Michael had never slept in his own room before, he had never even slept in a bed that was his own) and a private Christian school. The oxytocin flowing from the bonding and connection in Michael’s new family not only helped Michael learn to play football well enough to turn pro in the NFL, but helped him bring up his grades in high school and college enough to be eligible to play.
Oxytocin to heal wounds of previous relationships
Andy’s dad left when Andy was three; his mom became alcoholic and depressed, and stayed that way as Andy and his younger brother Nathan raised themselves together. Andy left home to bum around the country at 17. After a few years of odd jobs and sporadic attendance at three different community colleges, Andy was lucky enough to meet Lisa as she was graduating from nursing school. Lisa had survived her own alcoholic family, though developing a very different attachment style than Andy had, more quick to react and fix upsets than Andy’s style of withdrawal.
When their son Jake was born, Andy put all the love he had missed out on from his parents growing up (but that he had had for his younger brother) into his son Jake. He changed jobs so he could be home with Jake almost full-time while Lisa worked full-time at the local hospital. By the time I saw Lisa and Andy for couples counseling, Jake was four and raising Jake was healing the hole in Andy’s heart. Andy could use the joy of loving connection he felt with Jake to pull himself back into loving connection with Lisa rather than withdrawing, again and again in their sessions.
Oxytocin to re-wire the “rules” of relationship
I rode the subway a lot when I was in New York City for a three-day conference last February. To my amazement and oxytocin-seeking delight, there was a placard posted in every car. “If you are feeling ill, don’t stay on the train. Get off at the next stop; go to the nearest station agent. Someone will make a phone call for you; someone will help you get home or to a hospital. [A few more instructions, and then] Take care. You will not be left alone.”
I asked local colleagues about the sign. Yes, the city was trying to cope with a virulent flu epidemic at the time. The message at the end, “You will not be left alone” is what “re-wired” my expectations about New Yorkers and made me delighted to be in a snowy city that in mid-winter could have such a warm heart.
EXERCISES TO PRACTICE
Oxytocin is not itself a therapeutic modality. It’s not even a ‘technique” you’ll find in self-help books. Oxytocin is a hormone released in our brains under certain conditions to our great benefit.
When oxytocin releases again and again – as happens when we spend a good deal of time with people who love us – we seem to reap the long-term health benefits of human affection.
– Dan Goleman
The exercises below, when practiced regularly (I do Hand on the Heart at least five times a day) will strengthen the oxytocin response in our body-brain. We’re creating a natural neurochemical platform for “calm and connect” which is a platform for all things good.
1. Oxytocin to antidote stress
a. Hand on the Heart.
“Place your hand on your heart. Even the warmth of your hand touching your heart center will activate the parasympathetic nervous system and start to calm you down.
“Then take three deep breaths into your heart area, breathing in well-being or trust or safety or love or joy, breathing that experience into your heart and feeling it in your heart. Once that’s steady, call to mind a moment when you felt truly happy and safe, held in love and acceptance by someone. This may not always be a partner or a parent or a child. Those relationships can be so complex and the feelings mixed. This may be a good friend, a trusted teacher. It may be a therapist. It may be your grandmother, a third grade teacher, a beloved pet. Pets are great.
“Imagine this person or pet sitting across from you now, looking at you with true love and acceptance. In this moment, you can feel completely safe, completely cherished in their presence. As you remember feeling safe and loved with this person or pet, see if you can feel the feelings and sensations that come up with that memory in your body. Really savor this feeling of warmth, safety, trust, love in your body. When that feeling is steady, let go of the image and simply bathe in the feeling for 30 seconds.” Feel the “felt sense” of feeling loved. Let yourself take in that love. Feel it fully in your body. Let in sink in. Let it soak in for the next 45 seconds. Set the intention to feel this sweet feeling of love and connection any time you need to.”
Repeat this exercise many times a day. You’ll begin to feel its effect immediately and those effects begin to last longer and longer.
b. Loving Yourself Through Another’s Eyes
Another exercise is to call to mind someone you know unconditionally loves you. Imagine sitting across from them face to face, you can see all the love they have for you in their eyes; take it in, feel it, savor it, let it soak in. Now imagine trading places with them for a moment, so that you are looking at yourself through their eyes, seeing yourself as they see you. Imagine what you could be saying to yourself, as them, telling you how much they love you. Feel their love for you as they look at you. Then imagine being yourself again, again receiving their love coming toward you. Feel it, take it in, savor it. Let it soak in.
c When we do experience safety and trust in a loving connection with someone, we can use a symbol of that connection to help release oxytocin in the brain. Wedding rings, friendship bracelets, the birthday card we stick on the refrigerator, the t-shirt we sleep in when our partner is away, are all examples of using symbols to steady the flow of oxytocin in our brains.
Small wonder that cubicles in even the most soulless of offices are papered with photos of loved ones.”
– Dan Goleman
2. Oxytocin creates a buffer against future stress
A fun way to pro-actively generate oxytocin is a gentle two-minute head rub, sensual without being sexual. The gentle massage of fingers on the scalp, the forehead, the nose, the jaws, the ears, can lower blood pressure and calm racing thoughts. The touch, warmth, movement releases the oxytocin in the brain, calming the fear center, allowing a few moments respite from stress and pressure, and priming each person to cope more resiliently with the next stressor.
Another excellent way to strengthen the oxytocin response is to hang out with people you feel safe with, trusting of, loved and cherished by. “Where people exchange emotional energy, they can actually prime in each other the good feelings that this molecule bestows.” – Dan Goleman. This creates a circle of safety that creates a steady flow and new baseline of oxytocin in your brain. Then carry glow of oxytocin or this imagined circle of safety with you in future moments that might be stressful, meeting with your boss, going to the dentist, moving to a new city. The stronger baseline of oxytocin in your brain will help buffer any stress you experience.
3. Oxytocin harnesses neural plasticity to support learning and change
Developing secure attachment (oxytocin is the hormone of bonding for doing that) is a whole future e-newsletter by itself. When there is secure attachment, the secure base of knowing someone loves and cares for us and will provide comfort and protection when we feel battle-weary in the “real” world is what fuels our willingness to take risks in exploring, learning, growing, changing. That safe haven can come from a parent, partner, therapist, coach, whoever provides roots as we spread our wings.
“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.” – Dan Goleman
The circle of safety we created in the previous exercise can be that secure base. The next time you need to spread your wings a bit, call on that circle of safety or anyone who knows you, loves your, believes in you, will go to bat for you to help support the neuroplasticity in your brain that will help you cope with new situations flexibly, resiliently.
4. Oxytocin to help heal wounds of previous relationship
Because the tools of visualization and guided imagery can be just as reliable as physical touch in generating the oxytocin response, I suggest this exercise of Taking in the Love of a Benefactor.
A benefactor is simply someone in your life who has blessed you with a moment of unreserved well-wishing for your own happiness and well-being. This benefactor could be a loving parent, a caring aunt, a kind teacher, a wise friend, an open-hearted partner, a beloved pet.
Allow yourself to bring to mind a moment of kindness, of caring, from such a benefactor. Even just one moment – a kind word, a reassuring gesture, a comforting presence, a light in their eyes when you come near. Hold that moment in your mind for a moment – the quality of their presence, their words, their play and laughter with you, or their holding you in grief. Let yourself soak in this loving presence, drink up its life-giving goodness. Let the feeling of what you feel like when you’re with them linger in your heart and soul. (Remembering this feeling helps release the oxytocin in your brain.)
Continue communing for a few moments in the shared goodness of their wishing you love, happiness, joy. Open to the deep sense of goodness it meets in your own heart. REST – relax, and enter into safety and trust in this peaceful, loving benevolence.
This practice is as nourishing to your heart as your morning breakfast cereal is to your body and will help heal any hole in your heart from previous wounding. See if you can incorporate both into the routine of how you begin your day.
5. Oxytocin to help “re-wire” the “rules” of relationship
This exercise came to me during a training in Sensorimotor Psychotherapy to heal relational trauma. The more I teach it the more feedback I get that it really works.
“Bring to mind someone you love, someone you can unreservedly, unconditionally love. This could be a benefactor, a dear friend, a beloved child or a beloved pet. Feel the love you feel for them in your body. Sense the flow of love from you to them.
Then, when that’s steady, simply slip your inner self into that flow. Keep the love and empathy. Let it flow to yourself. If you can, let yourself receive the love and empathy; receive the care, feeling loved and cared for by your larger self.”
BOOKS AND WEBSITES
Awakening Through Love: Unveiling Your Deepest Goodness by John Makransky.
Being a Brain-Wise Therapist: A Practical Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology, by Bonne Badenoch. W.W. Norton, 2008.
The Chemistry of Connection: How the Oxytocin Response Can Help You Find Trust, Intimacy and Love by Susan Kuchinskas. New Harbinger, 2009.
Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life, by Steven Johnson. Scribner, 2004.
The Neuroscience of Human Relationships: Attachment and the Developing Social Brain. By Louis Cozolino, PhD. W.W. Norton, 2006.
Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships, by Daniel Goleman. Bantam Books, 2006.
A Warm Bath for the Brain: Understanding oxytocin’s role in therapeutic change by Linda Graham. Psychotherapy Networker, November-December 2009, In Consultation. Archived at www.psychotherapynetworker.org