For the Love of Oxytocin
In a previous post, I reviewed the basics of Resilience: Our capacity to bounce back from burnout. I likened resilience to a barbershop quartet – all parts are equally important, while a lone part is incomplete on its own.
The Four pillars of resilience are:
Sense of Purpose
- Social Support
In popular media, the focus has shifted from decreasing stress, to focusing on how our perception of stressors can cause us harm. We cannot change our perception without reflective exercises, preventative tools and committed practices.
Last month, we honed in on exercises that, when done regularly, can maintain Foundational Confidence. Revisiting this often can transform the exercise into a way of living.
This month, I’d like to turn the focus to Social Support.
Social support is not the same as socializing – although they can occur at the same time. A true sense of social support is:
- The safety to lean on your friends and family who accept your way of being in the world, however different from their own.
- Those who stand beside you through an experience, without judgment, pity, advice or advocacy.
- Individuals who enable you to grow and change at your own pace.
- Listening and participating in vulnerable conversations/moments.
- Space for laughter and lightness about habits and patterns.
Social support is how humanity demonstrates love. Love is an act of seeing and hearing someone in the way they are, in the moment.
The Biology of Social Support
The hormone Oxytocin, often associated with birth and breastfeeding, is released in our bodies when we feel seen and heard. Specifically, oxytocin facilitates social bonding and trust.
When the chronic stress hormone cortisol rises, our bodies naturally secrete more oxytocin as a counterbalance to stress. Cortisol induces oxytocin release, and oxytocin dampens the negative effects of cortisol. It is a beautiful two-step process. Our physiology urges us to find social support, which increases the release of more oxytocin.
When oxytocin is released in the bloodstream, it improves social communication (eye contact, nonverbal cues and self-disclosure), decreases anxiety, and acts as an analgesic.
It seems like a magic answer for anyone suffering from social anxiety, loneliness or pain.
But is the solution to take oxytocin supplements so that you don’t need to face the vulnerability of social bonding? No. When building resilience pillars, it is wisest to work with sustainable and preventative habits.
Being brave, facing fear of rejection, dealing with disappointment, cultivating safe bonding moments and participating in playful events are how we can spark the appropriate cortisol-oxytocin dialogue in our bodies.
When it comes to relying on support pillars, there are generally two types of people:
- Those who rely heavily on others to advise and bear the burden, and
- Those who isolate themselves in the hopes that detachment will eradicate stress.
Neither of these strategies are effective nor sustainable for building resilience. Social support is a necessary part of resilience, built on top of your foundational confidence and sense of self.
Daily Resiliency Practice – Choose Your Own Adventure:
Step 1: Awareness
In one conversation per day, take note of these four things:
- How long between when one person finishes speaking and the other begins?
- How do you respond when the conversation turns to ask of your experience?
- How often do you deflect when personal questions arise?
- How often do you begin sentences with “Me too, I…”, or relay your similarities?
Having a conversation usurped by mirror stories can feel hollow and incomplete, despite the intentions to connect. An act of listening that is followed immediately by sharing a personal story, is a micro-theft of someone else’s emotional space.
In the same breath, while conversing with an attentive listener initially feels supportive, if the vulnerability is not eventually mutual it can erode a connection.
A true sense of social support is reciprocal; an act of giving and receiving over time.
Step 2: Honesty
Ask yourself: Do I tend to fill space in conversation, or do I pull away?
Step 3: Change
Choose the following tool that suits you best:
Outsource: Can you draw out someone else’s perspective? List five concepts you are curious about and create an open-ended question for each. Broadly: How do you …, why do you think…, or what was it like for you when…? If you are curious about a concept, you are more likely to authentically ask and listen.
Ask one open-ended question to three people today, and resist the urge to add your perspective to their answer.
Metabolize: Can you become empathic? Empathy includes suspending your agreement or disagreement unless you are asked to contribute. Listen without linking to your own experience. The speaker’s words are true and accurate for their life, so allow yourself to metabolize what has been spoken.
Three times today, take five seconds between wanting to speak and speaking.
Assess: Are there signals that indicate supportive dynamics for you? To be able to respond honestly about personal questions a conversation must feel safe for you. Take note if you prefer:
- intimate/quiet interaction
- large/anonymous expression
- specific facial expressions or body language
- open or direct questioning
In one conversation today, observe three aspects of the dynamic that either work or don’t work for you. Building a support network starts with knowing what kind of support you want.
Contribute: Can you become proactive? When someone is investing in a connection, they would like you to invest too. Switch from being a passive conversationalist by taking a stand for something. Instead of asking questions, make a statement.
In one conversation today, start three statements with “I think/feel/want/like”.
There is no need to build a support network with everyone we know, but if we begin to honestly identify our habits of interacting socially, we will reach out to and become supportive for those with whom we feel safe.
In a nutshell:
Practice phrases that comfortably invite others to speak freely with you.
Let other people’s words have breathing room.
Identify the interactions you feel safe in and invest in those dynamics.
- Offer your perspective in a conversation.
Keep working on foundational confidence, and layer it with strong personal connections. Cultivate resilience day by day.
This exercise is the second part of the Barber Shop Quartet of resilience. In the next months, I will offer exercises to complete the quartet, so that your bounce-back capabilities are built with sustainable tools over time.