My patient Adam had been in a severe car accident when he was young. He nearly died of his injuries and spent several months in intensive care. He attributes his miraculous healing to the love of his friends and family who came to the hospital every day. They spent hours at his bedside, talking to him, and holding his hand. Even when he wasn’t conscious, he was aware that they were there.
Love is your healing superpower. For all of us. You have the ability to learn how to use it, to draw upon it, and to have it become an incredible healing tool.
The Chemistry of Stress
Cortisol is released by our adrenal gland, and is often called the “stress hormone.” This is part of your body’s natural response to stressful situations and fuels our “fight or flight” response. When we feel threatened, cortisol is released and suppresses certain functions of our nervous system, such as aspects of digestion, immune system, and sexuality, so that all of our energy can be channeled into the brain and muscles to deal with the threat at hand. For these reasons, when we are under constant stress we may experience a weakened immune system, digestive problems, or low sex drive.
Our ancestors’ stressors were very different than our own. They were running from predators, and the fight-or-flight response was ideal in those situations. In today’s world, where we have an overabundance of stressors, our body responds to each threat as if it were a tiger, which means we may be producing more cortisol than our body needs.
Too much cortisol can accumulate in your system and cause inflammation and disease. Chronic inflammation (a side-effect of stress) contributes to cardiovascular disease, cancer, arthritis, and numerous other inflammation-based illnesses. This also means that you may get sick more often, feel anxious, fatigued, or depressed.
The Love Hormone
On the other end of the hormone spectrum is oxytocin, also called “the love hormone.” It is produced and secreted by our pituitary gland and it is an amazingly healing hormone. Oxytocin is associated with feelings of bonding, intimacy, and attachment. It is released when women are in labor and when they are breastfeeding, and also during sex for both men and women. Oxytocin is released when we laugh, when we hug, and any time we do something that makes someone else feel good. It lowers high blood pressure, reduces anxiety, and strengthens the immune system.
These two hormones work together like a seesaw—so when oxytocin production goes up, cortisol production goes down (and vice versa). Therefore, oxytocin naturally reduces stress. The more you laugh, the more you play, the more you help others, the more you love and feel loved, the less stress you experience. This is a scientific fact!
The relationship between cortisol and oxytocin also explains the rose-colored glass effect you feel when you experience love. You feel happier, less stressed, and more connected to people because you are experiencing the love hormone—both when you give and receive love.
Keeping the Balance
Cortisol is not a bad thing. In fact, all of our hormones play an important role and we need them all to maintain balance. When hormones go into “overdrive” is when problems arise. Benign stressors plague us daily, and while these may not be immediately life-threatening our primitive brain percieves them as such. Rather than being chased by predators, we are chased by obligations and expectations—all of which our adrenals view as insidious monsters and respond by producing cortisol. These “dangers” are not life-threatening, but our body creates the same hormonal response as if our lives were threatened. The antidote is to balance stress with joy, laughter, fun, and love in our life.
Giving our attention and effort to the good stuff (or love) helps us begin to feel better. So treat yourself, and treat your friends and family. Make a point of doing something every day that makes you laugh! Laughter boosts immunity, decreases pain, lowers stress, relaxes your muscles, and helps prevent heart disease. Do things that make you feel good—make adult playdates, run around with your kids, have fun! By putting your attention on the sunny side, you will create more sunshine inside yourself.