by Dr Mahalia Freed, ND
Yes, I have come to believe that stress can be healing. Your body knows what to do. Even in the midst of true health crisis, we retain the ability heal. The wisdom within our bodies, and our innate capacity to remain in and return to balanced health, is incredible. It deserves highlighting, and celebrating.
Have you ever read an article, or been to a lecture about stress and health, and left feeling even more stressed afterwards, as the consequences of stress on your body sound so dire? Yeah. I have given those lectures. It turns out that there was a crucial missing piece in the oft-cited “facts” of stress increasing risk of everything from ulcers to heart attacks, high blood pressure to depression, hives to infertility. I would like to share some of this missing information today, and leave you with an empowering and uplifting message about resilience and connection in response to stress.
Oxytocin the Connector
Oxytocin is famous as the hormone of bonding, as it is released in high concentrations when people are breast-feeding. It is also released by the mere presence of a baby, whether you are breast-feeding or not, as well as with hugging, and with regular massage.
Oxytocin is a POSITIVE STRESS HORMONE. It counteracts the effects of cortisol in some incredible ways. Firstly, it is released during the stress response. Oxytocin is so calming, and so important for emotional regulation, that it is being investigated as a treatment for people with difficulty in emotional regulation, such as in borderline personality disorder. It helps us feel more emotionally stable, and eases anxiety. As well, oxytocin is a hormone of connection. It actually encourages us to reach out and ask for help, or reach out and connect with others in our situation.
There is body wisdom, building in a way to help us through stress with social support. Importantly, oxytocin is released when you both give and receive support. According to health psychologist and researcher, Dr Kelly McGonigal, people who help others in their community are less likely to die, given the same high amount of stress and its known negative health effects, than people who don’t reach out to others.
Oxytocin Heals a Broken Heart
Oxytocin is more than just a feel-good intimacy hormone. It also directly counteracts some of the inflammatory damage associated with stress. It is anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and it helps keep our blood vessels relaxed (and our blood pressure normal). It has been shown to have a healing effect on atherosclerotic arteries, and it stimulates stem cells to produce new heart muscle cells, mitigating any heart-related stress effects. Did you catch that? Oxytocin actually helps regenerate damaged heart cells. Wow. How amazing is that? Just when you need it, when you are in the midst of a physiological stress response with its corresponding increased heart rate and increased pressure on the vascular system, there is the wisdom of the body giving you the protection you require.
In her June 2013 TEDx talk, Dr Kelly McGonigal puts this way: “Your body has a built in mechanism for stress resilience, and that mechanism is human connection”
Isn’t that beautiful?
Our bodies truly do have the capacity to heal themselves.
Another area where oxytocin plays a role is in the immune system: Numerous studies have found that wounds take longer to heal in the presence of psychological stress – be it academic pressure as a university student, or the demands of being a caretaker for someone with Alzheimer’s disease. The reason for this is that cortisol selectively suppresses the immune system. In lab studies, anti-inflammatory oxytocin improves wound healing, and decreases ulceration in colitis. Again, here is our innate body wisdom, stepping in to take care of us when we need it.
We are so supported.
No matter what is happening in your life right now, remember that you are being taken care of by your very physiology. And to help maintain good health, choose some fun ways to boost your oxytocin production. See the list below for ideas.
Top 10 Ways to Increase Your Oxytocin, Naturally:
1) Listen to soothing music.
2) Sing with others
3) Dance with others
4) Cuddle, hug, hold a baby
5) Have sex with yourself and/or others
6) Treat yourself to some therapeutic massage or shiatsu
7) Gaze into a loved one’s eyes
8) Connect with a friend
9) Participate in a club, charity, or community group
10) Enjoy a delicious & leisurely meal
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