When I was young and first learning about sexuality, an older, mentor-like friend, taught me “Don’t have sex with someone you don’t like, because you will secrete oxytocin, which then bonds you to that person. So even if you don’t like them, you will find yourself kind of stuck like glue.” I can’t say I actually heeded the advice then, but I never forgot it. And it was the first time I had ever heard of oxytocin, the powerful elixir of bonding. Since then, I have learned much more about this fascinating and powerful neuropeptide.
I recently heard an interview on NPR with a German heart surgeon named Reinhard Friedl. He had recently written a book about the heart. As an avid student of the brain, admittedly I have never given that much thought to the heart. I had never thought about the fact that this tireless life-sustaining organ has cross culturally and over many centuries been euphemistically and metaphorically associated with love and emotion. People all over the world tend to put a hand on their heart area when moved by deep emotion, and the heart has seemingly universally been associated with love. I was intrigued by that.
From Friedl’s book, I learned that three weeks after conception the pulsing rhythm that accompanies us from that moment until our last, the heartbeat, begins. Certainly not wanting to engage in any debate about when a fetus becomes viable, I had not given much thought to that either. I was intrigued to learn from Friedl, that the catalyst that activates the throbbing metronome’s accompaniment throughout our life, is… you guessed it, this same molecule of love: oxytocin.
Because the most fundamental evolutionary priority for all species is to survive, and reproduce, the primary task of the mother after an infant’s birth is to create sufficient safety to achieve that mandate. To that end, when the mother nurses the infant, oxytocin is secreted to bond them, and to sustain the attachment that will keep the young safe enough to survive and thrive.
So oxytocin starts the pulsation of life; and then sustains it, for the vital function of attachment, the essential building block of safety and survival for all mammals and some invertebrates too!
In later life, oxytocin continues its task, bonding us to potential partners in reproduction, for good or for ill, as my friend warned me. It is generated in orgasm, but also when there is no orgasm, closeness and attachment of all kinds and among all mammals, including between human and non-human mammals. For example, our beloved dogs and cats, and all sorts of pets, will have the same effect, as do friends and effective therapists. And oxytocin is very ancient, because preservation of species has really always been nature’s design.
It is no exaggeration to call it the “love hormone.” And it is so much more.
Inflammation has become kind of a buzz word lately. Admittedly not that long ago, I had to look it up. I did not know what it meant. According to Wikipedia:
Inflammation refers to your body’s process of fighting against things that harm it, such as infections, injuries, and toxins, in an attempt to heal itself. When something damages your cells, your body releases chemicals that trigger a response from your immune system.
Chronic inflammation happens when this response lingers, leaving your body in a constant state of alert. Over time, chronic inflammation may have a negative impact on your tissues and organs. Some research suggests that chronic inflammation could also play a role in a range of conditions, from cancer to asthma.
Inflammation may be a cause of many of our medical and psychological symptoms. It is certainly a known consequence of life stress, particularly chronic life stress. According to Sue Carter, a long-time scholar and researcher of Oxytocin, another of Oxytocin’s many gifts, is that it is profoundly anti-inflammatory, meaning it reduces the infection and swelling resultant from inflammation, and promotes healing.
Of course trauma and neglect by their nature, are accompanied by a deficit, and often tragic poverty of attachment and thus oxytocin. The survivor lives and grows with a gnawing hunger and craving for love, connection and the comfort and regulation they bring. And they often suffer from persistent and often unusual, difficult to diagnose and treat autoimmune illnesses and ailments. The antidotes seem so obvious and simple, and yet sadly so elusive.
The healing power of love is no joke. How wondrous this love hormone! Life, love and healing. And now to proliferate it!
My book “Working with the Developmental Trauma of Childhood Neglect: Using Psychotherapy and Attachment Theory Techniques in Clinical Practice” will be published on the 31st August. It provides psychotherapists with a multidimensional view of childhood neglect and a practical roadmap for facilitating survivors’ healing.