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Love is the Drug – The Link Between Love, Oxytocin and Mental Health Issues
If you ask the average person about emotions and feelings they will typically tell you that they exist in the realm of thought, perhaps energy, but rarely of a chemical or embodied basis. One of the important advances in neurobiology has been the effects of the natural substance we call Oxytocin and its role in birth on subsequent attachment bonding in humans.
In fact this curious substance is increasingly being shown to play a key role in the formation of social bonds, and that mysterious emotion we call love. There are many forms of love and the word is abused in our society as it is used without meaning or purpose.
One aspect of love that can be stated is that love involves the creation and sustaining of a bonding between a person or sentient being and either another person, sentient being, or inanimate object. Some people love their spouse or parent, some people love their dog more than their spouse or parent, and some people love their Holden car more than their dog, their spouse and their parents!!
Love takes many forms and combinations but the bonding is a universal principle behind how humans engage with other inanimate and animate objects in love and attachment. It is felt most both in the presence of, and the absence of whatever object or person we are bonded to.
Oxytocin, which is now known as the ‘love hormone’, is recognised to promote feelings of love, social bonding and well-being. It is produced when we hug, touch, kiss or caress, and this hormone is also produced during sex, breast feeding, and other positive social settings and interactions.
Some people have impaired Oxytocin production. There may be a link between this factor and those people who cannot love nor bond with others or even objects. Evolution evolved this process within us to promote reproduction through sexuality and so there is a linkage between love and sexuality in those forms of love that are about sexual love.
As mammals we are more complex and our survival of the species involves not just mating but also the prolonged association of both parents to foster and nurture and protect new born babies which are totally dependent in infancy on their caregivers. In some species such as humans the role of the father goes beyond supplying sperm for the mating process.
The social bonding process also assists us with the maintenance and resiliency with stress and life threats. A problem shared is a problem halved or so the saying goes. A social bond promotes health across all dimensions of being and all psychological studies bear out this truth about the quality of life and health of well bonded people versus single individuals and poorly bonded couples.
Underlying this social bonding and attachment process is Oxytocin. Oxytocin is a substance that we as humans naturally produce and which forms an important part of any bonding process. The substance has a linkage to the central and Autonomic Nervous Systems (ANS) and these systems are involved in the social bonding process.
A key factor that neuroscience has found is that new social attachments are more likely to be formed during or after periods of vulnerability, including birth, lactation and nursing, sexual interactions, and also after periods of stress, distress and trauma.
This starts to explain how women who possess higher levels of Oxytocin than men, can get hooked into abusive relationships. The abuse causes stress, distress or trauma and then the release of Oxytocin then bonds the abused to the abuser.
It would seem that the come-down from the abuse into the state of non-abuse is equivalent to safety in the mind of the victim. The creation of safety is one aspect that promotes the creation of a social bond.
We start to see how there are physical and chemical underpinnings of what were long considered to be mentalised psychological processes. Oxytocin is a hormone only found in mammals. It is made by the brain, acts on the brain, and impacts the hypothalamus and the areas of the nervous system that stimulate and influence emotions.
Whilst Oxytocin is associated with birthing and lactation in humans it has also been found to play a key role in modulating reactions to stress and distress towards calming, as well as facilitating positive social interactions and bonding. In women who produce more Oxytocin than men it produces maternal bonding towards children.
It appears that Oxytocin promotes the selective partner preferences and monogamy in women that is the basis for the creation of stable family structures with partners and children. It also has an effect that creates resilience against depression and in particular post natal depression where vaginal births have occurred.
Vaginal births allow for the child to be coated with Oxytocin and the handling of the baby by the mother straight afterwards coats the mother with the same substance and initiates the chemical part of that social bonding process between mother and child. Caesarean births inhibit this process and so it is no wonder that more mothers who undergo caesarean births suffer post natural depression and have attachment and bonding issues with their babies.
In social settings Oxytocin appears to create a “safety” effect and it safe for people to socialise and connect. Interestingly traumatised people lose production of a majority of their potential Oxytocins capabilities and then find that they feel “unsafe” in social settings much of the time.
It appears the release of Oxytocin may feed back to the nervous system and promote relaxation. Most of us understand the relaxed effect from having had massage but few of us understand that it is the release of Oxytocin during massage that creates much of this powerfully felt sense of relaxation and nurturance.
The work of Sue Carter revealed that part of the power of Oxytocin is the fact it as a molecule only contains one receptor in its design for bonding. This makes Oxytocin a powerful agent for the integration of emotional experiences with the embodied physical processes through we now know love operates in humans and animals.
Oxytocin does not operate on its own but appears to work with Dopamine which is part of the reward and pleasure systems of the bodymind. It may be that these two hormones implicate part of our affective style or the broad range of individual differences in emotional responses to similar situations.
Dopamine is also implicated through its absence in depression whilst its presence can also be a form of reliance which underpins addictions and yet also underpins love. Hence the absence of love can bring on addiction or substance abuse and the disruption of social bonds often creates social anxiety and the vulnerability.
This is what is implicated in the absent parenting styles of mothers and infants where the maternal bond is broken and not repaired. The infant effectively traumatises when it cries in distress and no one safe or known comes to dampen down their aroused state.
This distress often creates the potential pathways for future vulnerability to addiction and substance abuse. A crying baby comforted by the mother will often release Oxytocin in the reunion as the effects of Oxytocin are most readily apparent following anxiety and stress.
Addicts often find that stress and anxiety then provoke the addictive impulses within them to fire and they seek a Oxytocin like reward which is the Dopamine linked addiction. Recovery from addiction then is often supported by the creation and ongoing maintenance of social bonds such as “Alcoholics Anonymous” or close family and friends.
The stressful events release CRH and Cortisol stress substances from the brain into the bodymind and these affect reactions to stress. Oxytocin release often follows the stress reaction so fear may set the stage for love and dampen down anxiety and fear in social settings where love may develop.
There is evidence that ongoing stress hampers the release and production process for Oxytocin. This may go some way towards explaining in anti-social and psychopathic/narcissistic personalities the lack of empathy and feelings towards others in social settings and relationships.
The role of trauma and stress in these type of personalities may have neuro-chemical foundations from the absence of Oxytocin production capability and presence in the bodymind. Also these personalities seem to possess more Vasopressin, which is another stress hormone which is closely structured like Oxytocin molecules.
There is evidence that Vasopressin starts to increase and Oxytocin decreases. Vasopressin produces self-defence responses such as hyper-vigilance and dominance behaviours which all are seen in the personalities mentioned earlier.
Strangely Vasopressin is also such that it can promote “love” or social bonds in males even when they are under hyper-vigilant arousal and mobilisation. This may explain sexual addiction states in males where under stress arousal states and anxiety they may seek to masturbate, have sex, or orgasm to find release and possibly the release of endorphins and Dopamine through sex.
This Oxytocin and Vassopressin link may be why men identify competitive and intimate relationships in social settings whereas in women, it facilitates the bonding and intimacy driven connections. Women are found to be more communal and family centric in their behaviour, whereas men are more inclined to be territorial, vigilant, competitive and striving to improve their social status.
So in summary we know that love is that mysterious force that can overtake any of us at any stage and hijack our senses and sensibilities. There is clearly a physical and chemical aspect to this whole state of being that is positive, life enhancing, socially enabling and family forming. We all need a good dose of love in our lives!!
The Energetics Institute has designed anxiety and depression resolution programmes in both its personal Psychotherapy as well as its organisational Conscious Business Australia faculties. These have been adapted from the various body-mind traditions of Somatic Therapy, Yoga, Mindfulness, Meditation, CBT, Human Biology, Neuroscience, and the Bioenergetic understanding of the body and mind.