I’ll continue to look at stress and how to make it our friend today, with a slightly different focus – that of how stress is beneficial for us socially. And, somewhat surprisingly, for our hearts!
Let’s start with looking at a study which tracked 100 people aged between 35 – 93 years of age. They were asked two questions: How much stress have you experience in the last year? How much time have you spent with your friends, and people in own your community?
There were bad news at first – for every stressful life event, like serious financial difficulties or a family crisis, the risk of dying increased by 30 percent.
But that increase wasn’t true for everyone. People who spent time caring for others showed absolutely no stress related increase in dying. Caring created health resilience.
Which brings me onto the hormone oxytocin, which is released when you hug someone. Resulting in it having its own nickname – the “cuddle hormone”.
Oxytocin fine tunes your brain’s social instincts – it makes you crave physical contact with close ones, it enhances your empathy and it makes you more inclined to help and be there for people you care about.
Basically, it makes you do things that strengthens close relationships. And with close relationships being found to be a vital factor in happiness and peace of mind, oxytocin arguably deserves the attention it’s received in recent years.
What most people don’t know is that oxytocin actually is a stress hormone!
When something stressful happens to you, your pituitary gland pumps this stuff out in a stress response, similarly to how it pumps out adrenaline which makes your heart pump harder.
So what does the cuddle hormone got to do with stress, you might wonder.
The answer is that when the oxytocin is pumped out, it encourages you to seek support. It nudges you to tell someone how you’re feeling instead of bottling it up.
When life is difficult, your stress response wants you to be surrounded by people who care and love you.
Your stress response also wants you to notice when someone else in your life is struggling, so you can support each other.
Perfectly normal and healthy human reactions. Which, I’m sure you agree, is pretty clever and rather lovely!
And oxytocin doesn’t only act on your brain and helps you protect your mental well being, it also protects your body from the ill effects of stress as it’s both a natural anti-inflammatory and helps your blood vessels stay relaxed during stress.
An additional, and I think, wonderful effect of oxytocin is on our hearts – it helps heart cells regenerate. In simple terms, this stress hormone strengthens your heart!
The great thing is that all of these physical benefits of oxytocin are enhanced by social contact and social support. So, when you reach out to others under stress, either to seek support or to help someone else, you release more of this hormone and you recover faster.
In other words, your stress response has a built-in mechanism for stress resilience, and that mechanism is human connection. Amazing right?!
I don’t suppose any of us would necessarily ask for more stress in our lives, but this new science has given me a whole new appreciation for stress.
In fact, I love my newfound way to look at it!
Viewing stress as a friend is powerfully beneficial. Stress gives us access to our hearts. The compassionate heart that finds joy and meaning in the connection with others.