If you’re in lockdown with family members, significant others, or roommates, you may be having more than enough interaction with them if you’ve been sharing the same space together for weeks. However, if, like me, you live by yourself and are not going anywhere — except the grocery once a week — you are probably starting to feel pretty isolated and alone.
Now, I consider myself a homebody and do not need a lot of socializing, but this is a new extreme. I didn’t realize how much my brief interactions at work and the yoga studio sustained me. I feel like I’ve been banished to a desert island. I’ve found myself “just coincidentally” going to go get the mail when my neighbor is in his yard to have someone to chat with — at a safe distance, of course.
There’s a good reason for this: oxytocin. Your brain needs other people. It needs oxytocin.
What Is Oxytocin and Why Do You Need It?
You may be familiar with oxytocin. It is sometimes called the cuddle or love hormone. Oxytocin is a neurochemical released in your brain through closeness with another person or people. Skin-to-skin contact releases oxytocin, for example, a person gets a big hit during sex and mothers do during childbirth and breastfeeding.
But you don’t have to even interact with someone else. Just being in the same physical space with others can do the trick, like a coffee shop, restaurant, gym, or office break room. (All the things we can’t do right now.) Oxytocin fosters feelings of intimacy, trust, and bonding. The cultivation of oxytocin increases fidelity in a mate and is essential for maintaining strong relationships.
The positive mental effects of upping oxytocin are most likely because oxytocin supports serotonin. Many serotonin-producing neurons also have oxytocin receptors. When oxytocin is released, serotonin gets a boost too. Serotonin is a neurochemical that does many different things in your body. Your brain’s prefrontal cortex, which primarily controls your mood, personality, and executive functioning, relies heavily on serotonin.
Oxytocin also calms the reactivity of the amygdala, the fear center of your brain, and strengthens its communication with brain circuits that help you control emotions. It helps a person cope in times of stress and anxiety.
Loneliness Hurts Your Brain
Not everyone who is alone is lonely. I generally love my solitude, but lately, it’s just too much of a good thing. When alone time turns into loneliness, it can hurt your health and brain. According to research, loneliness can adversely impact your health to the degree that high blood pressure, lack of exercise, obesity, or smoking does. One meta-analysis found that being lonely is linked to a significantly higher risk of death because it can put your brain in a state of low-grade chronic stress.
Humans are social animals who need contact with one another. Your brain needs it. In fact, the strongest predictor of a species’ brain size is the size of its social group. You have that big brain in your head in order to socialize. Your brain’s top concern is always your survival. There’s safety in numbers. That’s why your brain likes to be part of a group and feels stressed when it’s not. Whether it’s fish or humans, animals that find themselves on the periphery of their social groups are the ones most at risk from predators. Being in that type of danger causes the brain to stay in self-preservation mode – always on alert.
Ways To Keep the Oxytocin Flowing
Obviously, when we’re in lockdown, with many of us working from home, barely leaving the house and little interaction with others, we may have low oxytocin levels. However, even before the pandemic, in today’s cyber world, we’re often “alone together” on our digital devices, and it’s important to intentionally make the effort to connect in-person with someone and keep the oxytocin flowing.
While it is much easier to do normally, you can still stimulate oxytocin production while safely observing social distancing guidelines. Here are some ways to do — other than the obvious making a phone call or chatting through a screen:
Listen to or Make Music
Science shows that a music concert or singing in a choir produces a “social flow” resulting in a big release of oxytocin. Some research also suggests that just listening to or making music can have a similar positive effect. Specifically, one study determined that listening to or performing music can increase oxytocin levels:
Preliminary studies have shown that music listening and performing modulate levels of serotonin, epinephrine, dopamine, oxytocin, and prolactin. Music can reliably induce feelings of pleasure, and indeed, people consistently rank music as among the top ten things in their lives that bring pleasure, above money, food, and art,” the authors of the study wrote.
Connect with a Pet
There are countless stories about how furry friends aid people’s mental health. Of course, cats and dogs meet the need, but even bunnies, birds, or reptiles can help. A pet provides comfort, companionship, and a routine — a reason to get out of bed. Pets give us a sense of purpose and provide social interaction. Just stroking your pet or even someone else’s can increase oxytocin, endorphins, and dopamine in your brain. Several studies show that having a pet can reduce depression, encourage healthier habits, and increase feelings of connectedness. (I have four cats. I am so thankful for their companionship.)
Sing, Chant, or Talk to Yourself
This one surprised me. Science shows that singing releases endorphins, your brain’s feel-good chemicals, and stimulates the production of oxytocin. Group singing, in particular, has been found to lessen depression and loneliness, but singing alone also has advantages. Talking or singing to yourself or chanting a mantra — repeated sounds, words, or phrases that may or may not have meaning, such as “om or aum” — benefits your brain and body.
Science has discovered that oxytocin levels can be increased by the stimulation of the vibrations of your own voice. One researcher believes that you can increase oxytocin through narrative storytelling — especially when the stories are character-centered. (Perhaps we “bond” with the character.)
Help Someone Else
Science has shown that performing altruistic acts activates the regions of the brain associated with pleasure, social connection, and trust. Scientists also believe that giving behavior releases endorphins and oxytocin, producing a “helper’s high” that can last for hours and may even be socially contagious. (Now that’s a good kind of contagious.) So, offer to get your elderly neighbors groceries when you’re going out or some other act of kindness.
Make Eye Contact
Maintaining eye contact with someone creates a calming, connected state of being that, after 30 to 60 seconds, triggers oxytocin release. As you experience this chemical surge each time eye contact is maintained, those small boosts can add up to a sustained good feeling. While physical distancing, you can make eye contact safely online or through your phone. Fortunately for us, one study showed that even making eye contact with a dog with which you have a bond increases oxytocin levels.
During orgasm, your brain produces a myriad of hormones and neurochemicals. The most plentiful is dopamine, a hormone responsible for feelings of pleasure, desire, and motivation. Oxytocin is also secreted by the pituitary gland and released in the hypothalamus. All brains experience the release of oxytocin during sex, but women tend to continue to produce it for a while after orgasm. When you are going it solo, your brain releases less oxytocin than if you were with a partner, but it still has benefits.
Be Trustworthy Yourself
Oxytocin works both ways. When someone trusts you, whether or not you trust them, your oxytocin increases. You can enjoy more oxytocin by creating opportunities for people to trust you and then, by actually being trustworthy. Don’t confuse this behavior with seeking the approval of others. I’m simply talking about honoring your commitments, pausing, and internalizing the feeling of accomplishing that.