Like most other animals on our earth we survived by being part of a pack. Our biology evolved to encourage us to work together, to be a clan. In other words, we’re supposed to be together.
Our body is a complex system: brain, spinal cord, nervous system and hormones all playing a part in sending us messages for survival. Our body communicates to us using hormones and it uses one in particular to drives us to reproduce, to stay safe and to work together. It’s called oxytocin.
Oxytocin is sometimes called the love hormone, as it is secreted in our bodies at times of great connection like hugging, orgasm and childbirth. It is produced in your hypothalamus (an area deep within your brain) and is the hormone associated with empathy, trust, sexual activity, and relationship-building.
Oxytocin makes us feel those gorgeous feelings of love, connection, community. It’s the yummy feeling we get when we’re with someone we care about. When they body makes oxytocin, it sets off a chain in which serotonin is also created, which is a major antidepressant.
From and evolutionary perspective, the secretion of these feel good chemicals make sense. When we are engaging in activities that ensure our survival (like reproduction and togetherness) our body lets us know by feeling good.
Likewise, if we are isolated, disconnected or alone for too long, the body lets us know by feeling bad.
Isolation, anxiety and depression
It is the absence of these chemicals that result in us feeling bad. If we feel bad for long enough, it will likely develop into anxiety and depression. Many recent studies have reported that social isolation is a leading cause of anxiety. This could be because oxytocin is extremely difficult to produce when you are on your own.
As the incidence of anxiety disorders continue to rise dramatically, perhaps the right question to ask is, why are we feeling so alone? Even when we are physically in the presence of others, many of us still feel like we’re not connected. This could be because we fear rejection, so we don’t want to risk feeling vulnerable and exposed.
Carl Jung said, “loneliness is not the absence of people, it isthe absence of connection with people”. What this means is that for the body to create healthy levels of oxytocin, we need to feel relaxed, connected and in sync with others, and being in a state of fear is counterproductive to this process.
In addition, the body can become confused by social media. We have the sense that we are connected through our online communities, but we are not feeding the chemical and biological requirements of being physically in sync. Even though real relationships can be difficult and irritating, it is vital to our overall physical and mental well being to be together.
With that in mind, the new question is, how can we create the oxytocin we need?
Bessel Van Der Kolk (a leading psychiatrist and author of The Body Keeps the Score) says that one of the key ways to encourage oxytocin production is to get our body into sync with other bodies, literally. This can be an act as simple as everyone putting chairs out together for a dinner or gathering.
This is important when considering the fight against depression and anxiety. If you are depressed or anxious, you may have arrived at this state due to social fears around rejection. If you are afraid to speak and connect then these group physical activities are the path to recovery. Joining an art or yoga class can be particularly helpful as there is almost no need for social talking.
The point is, we don’t have to be in conversation to feel connected, we simply have to be together doing the same physical motions. This works better when we can be relaxed enough to be vulnerable, so if you’re feeling social anxious, start with the activities that feel safe to you.
Oxytocin for trust
The crazy thing is that once you start to produce more oxytocin you will actually feel more trust, and you will be more likely to engage in activities that will then produce more oxytocin. In this way social isolation is a bit of a downward cycle, where the oxytocin production of social interaction is an upward cycle.
I love this quote by Bessel Van Der Kolk, “If you feel safe and loved, your brain becomes specialised in exploration, play and cooperation: If you are frightened and unwanted, it specialises in managing feelings of fear and abandonment”.
Generating oxytocin through social interaction is a sure way to move toward play, exploration and connection with all beings, and from there, into a happy life.
If you’re feeling brave and want to try for yourself, here are a some of my favourite ideas for how we can increase the hormone oxytocin and combat feelings of anxiety and depression.
What better way to get your body in sync with another than to go in for a big wide hug? The longer the better, but remember you have to feel safe. Even though we are scared of touch, it works wonders and deep down, everyone wants the connection. Try telling people that you hug rather than shake hands and see what happens.
Share meals as often as you can. If you’re part of a family, resist the urge to eat alone, or with TV. Instead, sit together and share the food consciously: talking and looking at one another. If you’re single, try organising dinners or inviting people over.
GIVE YOUR FULL ATTENTION
When you’re with someone really listen to them. Make eye contact. If you’re afraid of connecting, then listening deeply and asking questions is a great way to keep your fears at bay.
GIVE A GIFT
Ever felt that warm glow in your chest when you give someone a birthday present or buy them dinner? Yep that’s your body telling you that gifts are a beautiful way to connect and create community.
WATCH A GAME
Cheering for a sports team can make us feel like we’re back in a clan. If you can’t find one to physically attend, then watching your football team on TV can boost your oxytocin levels too.
CUDDLE A PET
It doesn’t have to be a human body that you need to sync with, you can match up to an animal too. Walking, petting or playing with a pet is a great way to feel connected and loved.
JOIN A GROUP
As mentioned earlier, you can join a formal group, like a sports team, yoga class, art class, or book club. This is an excellent way to be together without a lot of pressure
Recently a client came to me complaining that she couldn’t stay consistent with her morning ritual. I asked her to share with me what practices she was doing and she pulled out a long list of about eight things.
While the intention behind our goals can be heartfelt, we need to be careful to set ourselves up for success, not failure. Lasting change happens with consistency over time, rather than in one huge swing of unsustainable effort.
In this article I’m going to share with you the simple daily ritual I recommend, and hopefully demonstrate why picking one or two special rituals is more powerful than trying to do them all.
The importance of ritual
By ritual, I simply mean the intentional creation of an ongoing helpful habit. This could be waking up each morning a little earlier than the kids to sit quietly with a cup of tea and purposefully muse on the goodness of life. Or it could mean that you leave your phone off for the first fifteen minutes after you wake, to sit in meditation and gather a sense of calm and purpose before the day begins.
Whatever you choose, it should be intentional, consistent and nourishing.
As humans, we are creatures of habit. Our brains are so incredibly powerful and efficient that they work by wiring neurones together to make easy work of repeating the same tasks. This means that whatever you repeatedly do, you do “easier”. If your habit is to wake up, smoke a cigarette and scroll through facebook, then your brain will continue to take you to that habit automatically and repeatedly.
Ritual breaks those old habits and rewires the brain for new ones. At first, they require commitment, but once they become automatic, they are simply part of our day. In this way, ritual and habit are the building blocks for our life.
My recommendation is to book-end your day with a morning and night ritual. The evening is a perfect time for reflective journalling or gratitude, as we can look back over and day and consider what went well, how we were generous or kind, and what we are thankful for.
The morning is a great time to set an intention, to clear the mind and to consider what we want for our day. This is achieved best through meditation: either formally by sitting and inclining the mind toward presence or through moving meditation like yoga or tai chi. It can also be less formal as in the cup of tea example I gave above.
Let’s explore these in further detail:
Evening practice: reflective journalling
At the end of the day make an intentional commitment to remove distractions. This may mean shutting down computers, turning off the television, and switching phones to do not disturb or airplane mode. If you’re in a busy home where this isn’t possible, you can create a quiet place away from distractions and make sure everyone knows this is your special reflective time.
Sit quietly for a few moments with a journal and pen and take some conscious breaths. Nothing fancy, just to centre yourself and turn inward. I suggest having the following two questions ready to answer.
1) What were three nice things that happened today?This could be simple things like a stranger smiling at you, a really well made coffee, or catching a nice sunset on your drive home from work.
It could also be things that you did well, like a task you finally completed. Or maybe you put yourself out there somehow or achieved a small goal. Maybe you managed to smile at someone or opened a door for a stranger. Keep in mind, it’s totally irrelevant whether other people thought you did well: it’s only what you think.
2) What were you thankful for today?
At first, it’s okay if nothing springs to mind or if you feel there’s nothing to be grateful for. If you’re not used to looking for ways to give thanks your mind might draw a blank, but if you commit to doing this every day then you will train your brain to notice the good.
If it’s a struggle, dig deep. Perhaps you can be grateful that we have hot water that comes directly out of the wall, or that you have clean food and water to ingest. That there is air to breath and that if you listen, you can hear sounds of birds and nature.
If you really can’t find anything, then simply be grateful that you have a quiet place to sit and that you have a mind capable of looking for gratitude.
It’s also important to look for new things, not just the same one’s each time. Recent studies show that it’s the search itself for something to be grateful for that spikes dopamine (a feel good chemical and antidepressant) in the brain.
NOTE: If you experience depression, then both of these questions may be difficult to answer at first. Day one you might just sit there and write nothing, but don’t assume that it is a waste of time. The brain is so adaptable that on day two, it will already be catching on: and maybe it will think of one thing to write, and on day three, a few more. Each day you will keep building value and the brain will set a new bar to reach. This is the nature of our human mind, so just keep going.
Morning Practice: meditation
The most powerful way to start the morning is in quiet reflection. There are hundreds of ways to meditate, though I hope you won’t get overwhelmed with all the possibilities. In its simplest form meditation simply means to sit and be present. You might do this by noticing your breathing, sound, or to repeat a mantra or phrase. You could also use a guided meditation.
There are other ways to reflect in the quiet of the morning. I have a client who wakes up, makes a cup of tea, sets her timer for thirty minutes and sits quietly back in her bed to drink it. She doesn’t turn on her phone off of airplane mode until after this ritual. It’s her favourite part of the day.
In the beginning less is more. Committing to five minutes a day is better than trying for thirty minutes and only fitting it in once a week. Developing a habit is about consistency and patience. After the meditation or ritual has become a habit, you can extend the time.
These practices are so simple, and can be done in less than ten minutes morning and night. I suggest making a commitment to doing this every day for a period of time and then really going for it. They say it takes 21 days to make a habit, so that would be a good place to start