Did you know that your feminine power is coded into your genes and wired into your brain? Nature designed us with a special talent for unification, healing and nurturing by giving us a heightened Oxytocin Response. Oxytocin is essential to physical health and it’s responsible for some of the world’s greatest treasures: trust, love and connection.
What is oxytocin?
Oxytocin is your body’s natural wonder drug. It’s produced in our brains by the hypothalamus. It travels through the bloodstream, where it does all sorts of good things for our bodies. It speeds healing, lowers blood pressure, counteracts the stress hormones and helps us relax. It also circulates through our brains where it acts as a neurotransmitter. There are lots of oxytocin receptors in the parts of the brain that handle reward and also what’s known as social memory: keeping track of whom you like, whom you love, whom you can trust.
Oxytocin seems to be what ties the pleasure of sex, for example, to a particular individual. It creates the bond between mates, between parents and children, between friends. Your brain also releases oxytocin into the social memory center when you meet someone new who matches your mental model of a trustworthy person.
That’s why sometimes you feel instantly close and connected to someone you’ve just met: This person in some way reminds you of others you know you can trust, so oxytocin in your brain tells you it’s okay to open up.
The womanly connection
Oxytocin was the first hormone to be discovered, when a veterinarian found that it helped livestock through the birthing process. Until this century, scientists thought that it was only important for childbirth and nursing — a woman thing.
Since 2008, studies of the effects of oxytocin on humans have shown that oxytocin makes us more generous, more trusting and helps us resolve conflicts without hostility.
Researchers have found that positive social contact elevates oxytocin levels. For example, when stressed-out college students talked on the phone with their moms, their oxytocin levels went up.
Oxytocin levels in the brain and body peak during sex and orgasm. Oxytocin seems to be the glue Nature designed to bond mates together, so that, when sex led to offspring, the couple would want to stay together and cooperate through the hardships of childcare.
Oxytocin is the basis of all kinds loving and nurturing behavior in men and women. While individuals vary immensely in all kinds of ways, women share at least one physiological trait: We have high levels of estrogen — in most cases, higher levels than men do. And estrogen seems to enhance the effects of oxytocin, while testosterone seems to mute them.
This explains why women tend to bond more quickly after sex — and also why we’re often seen as more caring, more, well, motherly than men. (This is not to say that men can’t nurture very effectively.) It explains why we enjoy social contact more, why our friendships are often deeper, and why we feel fulfilled when we care for each other and the planet.
It makes sense: Nature designed our bodies for childbearing and mothering. If we hadn’t evolved to enjoy taking care of our offspring, our species would have died out. But we use those same instincts — the same physiology and brain systems — for all our relationships.
Mothering, collaboration and peace
Thinking back to ancient times, you can see why society evolved the way it did. Women needed to stay safe with their offspring, in order to spend the years it takes for them to become physically independent. If a woman died, it was a struggle for her kin to care for the extra children.
Men were more expendable. Once he’d impregnated his mate, his genes were already safely passed down to the next generation. He evolved with higher levels of testosterone to help him aggressively defend his family and clan. Within the household, the clan and the village, this natural division of labor included the man’s taking charge of most activities outside the home, including trading and governing.
Today, we have the resources to allow individuals much flexibility in the roles we take on — and we’re finally seeing at least a few women rise to the top in business and government. Our next goal should be to transform the public world with a healthy dose of oxytocin.
Sometimes, we’re told we have to be more aggressive in the workplace, to compete like a man. Otherwise, they say, we’ll end up as doormats. Wrong! There’s a better alternative: leading with our woman’s strengths.
Our enhanced oxytocin response helps us excel as inclusive leaders. As bosses, we can nurture the talents of our teams. As colleagues, we can create societies powered by joy and satisfaction.
How to enjoy more oxytocin
The oxytocin-producing nerve cells in our brains tend to resonate with each other: When some of them emit oxytocin, others are stimulated to do it, too. So you can get into a positive feedback loop of oxytocin, love and connection. That’s why any oxytocin-producing behavior will help you enjoy more oxytocin at other times.
Sex and orgasm — when it’s desired and pleasurable — is a highly reliable way to enjoy an oxytocin rush. Although scientists haven’t reproduced the effects in the lab, it’s likely that any kind of positive touch releases oxytocin: hugs, cuddling and even a friendly handshake should work.
Activities that put you physically in synch with others can also help you enjoy the oxytocin connection. One study showed that people singing in a choir had higher oxytocin levels. And another study found that people who interacted with their dogs had elevated oxytocin — as did the dogs.
Connecting with someone you care about, even over the phone or via text or email, can help you release oxytocin. And be kind to strangers: Another study found that people who took care of others had higher oxytocin levels.
This urge for kindness and caring doesn’t make us weak; it’s our greatest strength. We can wield the power of oxytocin to guide society and the planet to a path of connection.
More about the Author
Susan Kuchinskas is the author of The Chemistry of Connection: How the Oxytocin Response Can Help You Find Trust, Intimacy and Love. Find out more about Susan, her books and her work at ChemistryofConnection.com
Picture: Oxytocin crystals, light micrograph
Credit: PASIEKA/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY
Caption: Oxytocin. Polarised light micrograph of crystals of the hormone and neurochemical oxytocin. In men and women, this hormone is secreted naturally by the pituitary gland. Magnification: x50