New research is suggesting that oxytocin plays a crucial part in enabling us to not just forge and strengthen our social relations, but in helping us to stave off a number of psychological and physiological problems as well. But more conceptually, oxytocin is proving to be a crucial ingredient to what makes us human.
Oxytocin is released in a huge number of social scenarios. All you need to do is simply hug someone or shake their hand. The simple act of bodily contact will cause your brain to release low levels of oxytocin — both in yourself and in the person you’re touching. It’s a near-instantaneous way to establish trust. There is even evidence that simply gazing at someone will do the trick — or even just thinking about them. While interacting with others makes us feel better psychologically, it may also play a role in wound healing and physiological health, since it is hypothesised that oxytocin is involved in reducing inflammation, increasing the rate of wound healing.
Oxytocin isn’t just responsible for couples getting closer — it’s an indispensable part of childbirth and mother-child bonding. Oxytocin helps women get through labour by stimulating uterine contractions, which is why it’s sometimes administered (as Pitocin) during labor. It’s been known to promote delivery and speed up contractions. After birth, mothers can establish intimacy and trust with their baby through gentle touches and even a loving gaze. In addition, oxytocin also aids lactation, acting at the mammary glands, causing milk to be ‘let down’ into subareolar sinuses, from where it can be excreted via the nipple.
Given its ability to break-down social barriers, induce feelings of optimism, increase self-esteem, and build trust, oxytocin is increasingly being seen as something that can help people overcome their social inhibitions and fears. Studies are showing that it may be effective in treating debilitating shyness, or to help people with social anxieties and mood disorders. It’s also thought that oxytocin could help people suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. In addition, given that autism is essentially a social communication disorder, it’s being considered as a way of helping people on the spectrum as well.
‘Til next time…