Have you ever been in conflict with your partner or friend and you find yourself thinking about it obsessively? You may even notice that you have a headache, are sleeping poorly, and indulging in your favorite flavor of ice cream (or wine). Some of us feel the impact of our relationships viscerally and clearly. When I am not in good relationship with my husband or kids I feel like I am on fire inside, and everything that I do seems to be affected. It is truly an awful feeling. My husband, on the other hand, will admit that he may feel off or disconnected for days before he makes the connection between the symptoms in his body and whatever is happening in a relationship. Whether we experience it on a conscious level or not, the quality of our relationships have a direct and powerful impact on our physical and mental well-being.
According to Harville Hendrix Ph.D., a nationally recognized couples therapist and bestselling author, “Connecting is our deepest desire, and to lose it is our deepest fear.” He is not just referring to the connection we feel with our partner alone but the connection we feel in any of our relationships—child, sibling, co-worker, etc. It is our human nature to connect and Hendrix says that when we are not connected in relationship we experience anxiety. Anxiety, in turn, brings up feelings of being irritable, defensive, short-tempered, depressed, paranoid, etc. Everyone ends up suffering.
The health of our relationships is a key aspect to our wellness—literally! We don’t just mentally want connection, our physical body thrives on it. Experiencing positive connection with another person has a direct effect on the body and on health. It is a powerful healing agent for the body because it triggers the release of a hormone called oxytocin—often referred to as the “love hormone” and most commonly known for its release during childbirth and breastfeeding. But the benefits of oxytocin are experienced much more often than just during birth and infancy. It is also released as a result of positive interactions and when receiving psychological support. High dose bursts occur with skin-to-skin contact, like hugs, snuggles, massages, love of a pet, and sex (orgasm in particular). Once present in the body, oxytocin decreases stress, anxiety, and depression. Physiological benefits of oxytocin include:
- Decreasing the stress hormone cortisol and lowering our blood pressure response to anxiety-producing events. As a result, the more oxytocin that our body releases the more able we are to deal with life stressors.
- Decreasing cellular inflammation and improving heart functioning. Researchers have recently found that oxytocin infusion reduces cell death and inflammation in an injured heart and is thought to improve heart functioning overall.
- Reducing cravings of drugs, alcohol, and sweets, increasing sexual libido, enhancing immune functioning, improving our ability to socialize and connect, and promoting sound sleep.
- Fostering generosity. There is a cyclical affect with oxytocin: when we connect with others our body releases oxytocin, which then fosters more connection and generosity, which in turn keeps the oxytocin flowing, and the cycle advantageously continues. Check out this powerful TED Talk on the role of oxytocin in trust, morality, and generosity.
On the flip side, research shows that beyond being an unpleasant experience, loneliness can actually harm the body’s immune system by affecting a gene that controls immune functioning. Other scientists have discovered that lonely individuals produced more inflammation-related proteins in response to acute stress than did people who felt more socially connected. Many studies are now identifying a strong connection between loneliness and chronic stress, which we know leads to many health problems.
Even the most introverted and independent of us need regular connection, whether it is from a pet, a partner, a family member, or even just one close friend. Just because we may be busy individuals running all over town, interacting with people constantly, does not mean that we can’t experience loneliness. In fact, our busyness can be the main contributing factor to our loneliness—and our anxiety. Loneliness is different than simply not being around people; rather, it is lacking connection with the people that we are with. Busyness and life stressors can distract us from true connection with the people around us.
For me, becoming a new parent created many feelings of loneliness. When I had my oldest son, I often felt isolated, even though we lived in a big city. I was focused on my pursuit of figuring out parenting, I was exhausted from poor sleep, and my relationship with my husband was struggling as we tried to figure out our new life as parents together. From the outside, I’m sure coworkers and strangers couldn’t tell I was lonely, but on the inside my tunnel vision as a new mom created barriers to my ability to connect with those close to me. During this time, I felt emotionally reactive in relationship with others, easily burdened by stressors, and turned to unhealthy comfort foods for support. I did not feel well physically or emotionally and felt completely stuck in my inability to move through these challenges. Once I adjusted to motherhood, though, I found ways to connect meaningfully with people and my loneliness shifted so that I feel it less these days. I do still experience periods of loneliness, though. It is usually when I am overly busy, focused on household tasks, work and school responsibilities, and family needs. I am aware that when I am feeling isolated and lonely I become more reactive in my home and struggle to maintain healthy lifestyle and eating habits. I am now able to recognize the feeling of loneliness and be proactive in reaching out to connect with my husband and others in my community when needed, nipping the unhealthy feeling in the bud.
So, bring on the oxytocin by hugging and snuggling those you love, repairing relationships that are struggling, and slowing down to actually be present with the ones you are with. My oldest child has had the word oxytocin in his vocabulary since he was five because it has become a ritual in our house to get our oxytocin fix on a regular basis.
Learn how to foster healthy relationships and bring on the oxytocin in Sarah’s book Full Plate: Nourishing Your Family’s Whole Health in a Busy World.
Harville Hendrix, “The Nutritional Power of Relationship,” lecture, Institute for Integrative Nutrition, New York, 17 November 2014.
Joseph Mercola, “Love Really Can Cure a Broken Heart,” Mercola.com. January 2010.
Emily Caldwell, “Loneliness, Like Chronic Stress, Taxes the Immune System,” Research and Innovation Communications, Ohio State University, 10 January 2013.