Help! I’ve been cut off from nearly all of my habitual social gatherings! I feel bad and sad! It’s the feeling of loneliness! I’m craving a hug from someone I know and trust! Where’s my hug?! I’m craving an in-person gathering of my best girlfriends, or an in-person gathering of my book club, or, I mean, anyone up for a rousing family game of Twister? Where’s the social love?!
Yep, this is really how I feel, living in isolation, here in my home without a family or sig other anywhere in sight. But, taking a step back, why do I feel this way? As Loretta Graziano Breuning points out in her brilliant book Habits of a Happy Brain (2016), a lizard is perfectly content to hang out all by itself, for the majority of its life. But mammals are different, she explains:
“Mammals live in herds and packs and troops because there’s safety in numbers. If they are separated from their group mates, their oxytocin falls and they feel bad. A herd animal panics when it can’t see at least one of its group. When it rejoins them, a surge of oxytocin relieves the cortisol.”
In other words, how we feel is determined by our neurochemistry. Human beings, being mammals, have a chemical called cortisol that makes us feel bad and stressed out, and we have a chemical called oxytocin that produces the happy feeling of bonding with others. These chemicals are released in our brains depending on our situation, and they control whether we feel good or bad. Our brains are hardwired to do this because it gave us mammals evolutionary advantages.
There’s nothing we can do to change the fact that we humans—like apes, horses, dolphins, and lots of other animals—crave the good feeling of oxytocin that floods our brain when we find companionship and group bonding. And we also can’t change the fact that when we lack companionship and group bonding, we feel that achy stressy lonely feeling produced by cortisol. But we can make life choices that will keep the oxytocin flowing more often and thus produce the vague but wonderful state that we call happiness.
At that point, I had to stop typing on the computer. My arm muscle had gone into a knot yesterday. This can happen when I write with a pen or pencil while my arm is not at full strength, as it is now currently not. From long experience, I know that a muscle knot like this can linger for weeks unless I get a massage. So I called up my new holistic physical therapist, and he luckily had an opening at 11am today. So I went and got my massage, and now I’m back home. And I’m going to write the remainder of this blog post through touch screen and voice.
And so my arm is feeling better, and guess what? So is my mood! As it turns out, getting a massage is one of the major recommendations Graziano Breuning offers for increasing oxytocin levels!
So I lucked out. I had a serious physical health need for a massage, and I was able to get the byproduct of a mental health boost. Now, obviously, I can’t be getting massages all the time, nor can I recommend that for you, during this time of coronavirus. (My therapist and I both wore masks and took other precautions, but still, it felt and was risky.) The good news, however, as Graziano Breuning explains, is that making digital friends and playing with pets are perfectly valid ways of boosting oxytocin.
Moreover, she explains that each of us has strong neural circuits that we developed as kids; but we do not have to stay tied to those neural pathways. We can, if we choose, grow new neural pathways that boost happy chemicals in different ways. So if you’re feeling lonely, you could experiment with joining new online groups or adopting a new pet or pets. A word of caution: Graziano Breuning explains that it takes 45 days to develop a new neural circuit. If hanging out with people online, or animals in person, is new for you, it’s important to stick with it every single day for 45 days.
Yeah, nothing good in life comes easy.
But, hey, we have lives. Isn’t that amazing? And we can grow new happy circuits in only 45 days. Isn’t that amazing, too?
Have you been feeling lonely lately? What makes you happy in a social bonding sort of way? What ideas do you have for boosting oxytocin in new ways, over a 45-day period, not missing a day, despite not being able to meet people in person?