Before Reading Note: I ask you to read this article with an open mind. The neurochemical reactions described here apply to you and your brain, regardless of any political ideation. I don’t hide my political views, but I also don’t ask you to agree with them. I simply ask that, if you choose to read on, you do so from a place of empathy.
Saturday, January 21st, the day of the historic Women’s March on Washington, was the first day in a long time that I felt optimistic.
I was one of the 52% of Americans who found the 2016 election to be a “significant source of stress.” I was wracked by anxiety. I had trouble sleeping. My emotions seemed to be at the whim of the news-cycle. A fiery lump of nauseous anxiety burned beneath my sternum.
These feelings only intensified as Inauguration Day arrived. That night, I carefully pressed my sharpie to a piece of poster paper and sewed the last stiches in my “pussy hat.” I knew that I would feel better doing something, but I had no idea how much better I could feel.
Much has been written about the uplifting feeling of being at the Women’s Marches, which took place across the globe. My experience in downtown Los Angeles was no exception. I was immediately struck by how kind, open and out-going everyone was. Los Angeles is often considered one of the world’s LEAST friendly cities. Yet, I made countless friends, as I piled into crowded subway trains and waited for over two hours for the march to begin. Each person was truly present. The atmosphere was passionate and positive—a joyful expression of values each person held dear.
I was deeply touched to be a part of it.
Reflecting on my experience, I wanted to understand why the march felt so good. What had transformed each of us from brooding, isolated and anxious individuals to an open-hearted, diverse and jubilant crowd? It turns out the answer may lie in our biology.
As human beings, our minds are greatly affected by two opposing hormones: cortisol (the stress hormone) and oxytocin (the love hormone). These hormones are released in our brains in reaction to various stimuli.
Threatening or upsetting stimuli, for instance, causes our brains to release cortisol. This sudden increase in cortisol, as well as adrenalin, is tied to our primal fight, flight or freeze response. These stress hormones were necessary for our ancestors to fight off an attack or flee from a dangerous situation. However, when we read an alarming bit of news on our computers, we neither fight nor take flight. So we are left frozen in a state of hyper-vigilance and hyper-arousal. Our blood pressure goes up, our hearts race, our immune systems begin to shut down, increased gastric acid can lead to acid reflux or nausea. That fiery lump of nauseous anxiety I was feeling during the election cycle, THAT was cortisol.
The long-term health consequences of elevated cortisol can be dire.
Luckily, there is an antidote to the stress hormone, and that is oxytocin! Often referred to as the “love hormone,” “trust hormone,” or “empathy hormone,” oxytocin is released in response to comforting stimuli. This hormone is essential in developing connections with others. According to studies, “Oxytocin can induce anti-stress-like effects such as reduction of blood pressure and cortisol levels.” Additionally, oxytocin stimulates “positive social interaction” and promotes both physical and psychological well-being. That feeling of kindness, openness and connection I felt at the Women’s March, THAT was oxytocin.
It turns out there are some simple ways to increase oxytocin levels in your body. Here are a few reasons oxytocin levels may have spiked during the Women’s Marchç:
Human touch has a powerful effect on our brains. When the pressure receptors, known as “Pacinian corpuscles,” beneath our skin are stimulated, they send a signal to the vagus nerve in our brains. The vagus nerve slows down the heart, decreases blood pressure and reduces stress. According to Michelle Trudeau, “A friendly touch also increases release of the oxytocin.” So all that close contact with fellow marchers, along with any handshakes, hugs or high fives would have given your brain a nice boost of oxytocin.
Walking outdoors is statistically correlated with higher levels of oxytocin. The combination of light exercise and sunshine does our brains good. Furthermore, the act of walking bonds us to the people we are walking with. Marching alongside friends and strangers alike would have contributed to us feeling closer and more connected to them.
Laughter triggers the brain to release oxytocin. Chuckling at the many humorous signs carried high above protestors’ heads, no doubt played a part in lifting everyone’s spirits, as well as building a sense of community between marchers.
Studies show that suppressing emotions leads to lower levels of oxytocin. When we hold back our feelings, we create more stress in our bodies and minds. Expressing pent up feelings, such as sadness, anger and frustration, in a healthy way can be a powerful stress-buster. The Women’s March created a positive environment to openly share one’s emotions and feel heard.
Kindness and Generosity
Acts of kindness and generosity create feelings of emotional warmth within us that are linked to an increase in oxytocin. The day of the Women’s March, I witnessed and participated in dozens of random acts of kindness and generosity. One of my favorite parts of the day was when my nephew and I helped an elderly lady, who (like us) had accidentally gotten on the wrong subway home. We traveled with her the rest of the way and got another boost of oxytocin when we hugged goodbye.
I went home from the march feeling inspired, giddy with oxytocin, and optimistic. So much of politics and media coverage is powered on fear. It’s easy to get anxious, paralyzed in a wash-cycle of too much cortisol. It’s important to remember that there is antidote.
According to British psychotherapist, Jonathan Hoban, “Oxytocin plays a pivotal role in the process of reconnecting, rebuilding trust and feeling safe. If we all took certain daily actions that encouraged the production of oxytocin within ourselves and others, we would see divisive behavior and fear lessen within our society.”
Joining with others to actively voice your opinions (whatever they may be) about the world can be transformative.
Here are some of Jonathan Hoban’s suggestions for ways to increase the flow of oxytocin on a daily basis:
- Coming together as a community
- Asking for help
- Providing Reassurance
- Listening to another
- Selfless deeds and actions
- Walking in nature
- Soothing environments
- Keeping structure and routine
- Deep breathing