How social distancing-associated hormone imbalance is harming our health
You know the rules. Maintain six feet of separation. No hugging. No handshakes or high fives.
But at what cost? Truly.
Sure, those guidelines came about during a time when we were led to believe COVID was going to take us all out, but as more truth comes to the surface (obviously not via mainstream media) and we learn that the actual numbers (positive-tested and mortality) are far less than those of even the standard seasonal flu...how much must we keep paying for price of falling in line and fearing our fellow humans?
Our mental and emotional health? Because that's what our collective oxytocin levels are showing.
Oxytocin is a hormone of the brain that's released when we get physically close to someone or bond socially. As such, it's often referred to as the "cuddle hormone" or "love hormone."
For women, it's imperative during the birthing and nursing processes and promotes innate mother-child bonding. It's shown to facilitate a similar bonding between men and their children.
It's not just important for those who intend to procreate, though! Other benefits of oxytocin include:
Remedy against the effects of loneliness, fears, and turmoiled relationships
Establishes balance for those who are less socially engaged as well as those who are preoccupied with closeness
So how is all of this distancing impacting our health?
Well, if you haven't heard - human beings are naturally social animals, and our survival largely depends on being part of a group or community. Yes, that goes even for the most self-acclaimed introverts. Therefore, we've naturally evolved to react to forced isolation from our peers as a threat to our survival; which, in turn, triggers the stress response.
Now almost 3/4 of a year in...that's a lot of triggered stress response within a lot of human beings.
The stress response increases the amount of adrenaline as well as cortisol that's released by the habitually-already-overused-in-our-society's adrenal glands. These natural and healthy responses of the body, in turn, go full-on fight or flight mode. Because, you know, at one point the stress response meant that we actually had something to worry about.
Increased social isolation has already been linked to increased risk for cardiovascular and inflammatory diseases, immunodepression, and psychiatric disorders, just to name a few. A study done right here in America showed that this forced isolation isn't only linked to the prevalence of depression and anxiety, but also to the increased severity of the symptoms.
Other symptoms of oxytocin deprivation in the body include:
decrease in pain tolerance
rise in blood pressure
triggered aggression and irritability
impaired sexual function
increase in appetite for sugar-rich food and drinks
disturbed sleep patterns
The importance of touch
Touch is one of the first languages we learn. And it doesn’t just feel good to hug someone, give high fives, or snuggle up. Science points to an actual physiological and emotional need to do so.
“Many have heard of the well-known UCLA study that cites women need eight to 10 meaningful touches a day to promote physical and emotional health, and across the board, studies show that men, women, children, and adults can benefit from touch because it triggers oxytocin release." -Nadia Ameri, educational psychologist based in Woodland Hills, CA
In fact, the primary ways our bodies trigger oxytocin production is specifically through physical touch. Even merely sitting side-by-side with someone. It, of course, ramps up when hugging, holding hands, and during sexual intimacy.
Captain Obvious here to say that social distancing has led to a drastic drop in the amount of time we spend with others.
Sure, we have Zoom and the likes, but as handy as the virtual options might be, we're still kept from fulfilling the core human need for physical touch. Heck, even as the world starts "opening up," many are still hesitant to embrace others for fear of spreading or contracting the media-spotlighted virus of the times.
What else can you do to help supplement your oxytocin levels in this time of social distancing and isolation?
In a current reality of aggressive, ongoing social distancing, here are some options:
Savor extra quality time with your pet companions. Time spent with them is also proven to produce oxytocin.
Rally your people and spend some valuable time together in a shared space, free of harsh judgmental vibes, maybe even exchanging hugs or friendly shoulder rubs. All beneficial for individual and collective well-being.
Tap into the power of visualization. There's a study stating that "pleasant mental experiences" can also be a source for oxytocin release. Check out photos associated with uplifting memories or simply meditate on some of your favorites experiences involving togetherness. The mind is a great projector. Let it be used for healing.
Move your body. Exercise also releases feel-good endorphins. Take a hike (literally!), do some short bouts of interval training in your backyard or the park, find an outdoor yoga class that suits your specific level of interactive preference. Just get down on some movement that helps you feel good.
Deliberately make contact with those you do have around you. Whether it's your partner, kiddos, or close crew of homies, be intentional about getting your daily doses of physical connection. Linger extra seconds in your hug. Let your kid sit on your lap or or enjoy your walk from atop your shoulders. Make space to cuddle up before bed.
If you can't physically make contact with someone, be intentional about the connection you can make. Eye contact is a powerful one. Embracing the genuine love that can be found in a wave to your neighbor, even.
Overall, acknowledgement of each other's being, especially during these times, shouldn't be down-played.
As social beings, our brains are simply not wired to live in isolation. Trying to do so exposes us to both physical and mental harm as long-term stress response activation weakens the immune system, making us all more susceptible to illness.
Overwhelm is real and totally understandable. And, overall, you're so far from alone. Just keep trying to do your best to remain connected to others. And please don't buy into the fear of hugs and high fives! Your well-being actually depends on it.
By Sam Jump