The studies on oxytocin are surprising: helping others and allowing ourselves to be helped strengthens our endurance and lowers the risks of stress.
Oxytocin is a neurotransmitter and a hormone; despite being a “small” peptide of only eight amino acids, two of them form a disulfide bridge that orients it so that it finds its cellular receptor. It is excreted in the hypothalamus and stored in the pituitary of the nostrils.
It intervenes in gestation, in the excretion of maternal milk, in the mother’s contractions during childbirth and in those of women and men during orgasm; that is why it is often called the hormone of happiness, of pleasure. But it is even more than this.
It is the hormone of maternal and paternal feeling, sleep, and appetite (sexual as well), bonding, attachment, and complicity, social.
It is released through a hug, a smell, or sometimes simply by watching other human beings show each other affection (such as seeing a mother caressing a baby) with the help of mirror neurons, which are activated in situations of empathy. Or imitation.
OXYTOCIN AND ADRENALINE, STRANGE COMPANIONS
But what about in a stressful situation? Our pituitary pumps oxytocin in these situations, just as it secretes adrenaline. And that is why when we enter a situation of perceptible danger we ask for help from loved ones. In the same way, when we give help to a person in need we also release oxytocin.
Candace Pert, a pioneering American neuroscientist who died in 2013, published the book everything you need to know to feel good in 2007. Pert called oxytocin the hormone of emotion and postulated that hormonal activity can vary without any rational action, our mental and emotional behavior being sufficient to regulate it.
This was supported by the finding that almost all cells present and express receptors and produce and emit neurotransmitters such as serotonin, epinephrine or oxytocin. That left behind a lot of “medical knowledge” in which a large part of the pharmacological treatments in psychiatry was sustained.
However, it has been the American psychologist Kelly McGonigal, from Stanford University (California, USA), who has explained it in a more understandable way in all the forums in which she has participated in recent years, thanks to a highly illustrative study that made him rethink the focus of all his many years of dedication to the study of stress.
A SURPRISING SCIENTIFIC DISCOVERY
For eight years, 30,000 American adults were followed who said they had suffered some type of stress. The study was based on the answers to two very simple questions:
- What level of stress have you experienced in the last year high, moderate, or low?
- Do you think stress is bad for your health?
Subsequently, the mortality of the entire group was analyzed. Individuals who experienced a very high level of stress had a 43% higher probability of death. Apparently nothing that was not known before: stress kills.
But what was surprising was that this was only true in the group that considered stress “harmful” to their health. People with a high level of stress but who did not believe it was harmful to their health had a lower risk of death than any other individual, including people who considered their stress levels “low”.
According to the extrapolation of the data of the eight years that the investigation lasted to the entire population, 182,000 Americans died “prematurely” (at an age below life expectancy), not because of stress, but because of the belief that that stress is bad. That represents just over 20,000 deaths annually.
If all these calculations were correct, the translation could be that “believing that stress is bad for your health” was the 15th leading cause of death in the United States in 2013, above melanoma (skin cancer), AIDS or homicides.
Clearer: stress is less harmful to health in terms of mortality than thinking that stress is bad for health. Dr. McGonigal, an expert psychologist, proposes this extrapolation exercise to understand that, if we turn this thought around, we can live better with or without stress.
From hormonal activity we can change the expression of something and by feeding back this hormonal segregation we can really modulate the mental state that plunged us, for example, into negative feelings (it can also happen in the opposite direction, of course). Through memories and positive stimuli, we can transform into harmless, I am not saying positive, something that causes us pain and anguish from the outset.
HELPING OTHERS HELPS YOURSELF TOO
At this point, I would like to illustrate with another real study something much more surprising. A group of researchers from the Department of Psychology at the University of Buffalo (New York, USA) published in 2013 in the American Journal of Public Health a work under the title: Giving to others and the association between stress and mortality (Dar others and association between stress and mortality). The aim of the study to show that helping others reduces the association between stress and death.
It examines data from 846 volunteers from the Detroit area (Michigan, USA). All of them acknowledged having suffered some episode of stress and knowing family or friends who had suffered. They were asked if they resorted to asking for help from a friend or family member, or if they provided it. The mortality of this group of people was then monitored for the next five years using existing public data.
The results revealed the existence of a relationship between giving help and episodes of stress. Stress did not influence higher mortality in the subgroup that helped others in the past year. On the other hand, stress and mortality were positively correlated in those who did not provide help to others.
His conclusion is very clear and is a literal translation of his publication helping others reduces mortality by blocking or inhibiting the association between stress and mortality.
There are more experiences that show similar results. And again those of Dr. McGonigal shed light in the same direction. In a study he carried out with a thousand people between 34 and 93 years old, he concluded that stress increases advanced mortality by 30%, except among people who help others. In this second group no such increase is observed; the influence of stress is zero and there is no increase in mortality.
Again we come to the same conclusion: the damaging effects of stress are not inevitable. How we think and act modulates the effect of stress.
BUILDING THE BIOLOGY OF COURAGE
Dr. McGonigal explains that when we choose to respond to stress as beneficial, we create the biology of courage. When we choose to connect with other people who are under stress, we can build resistance.
Not that I think stress is beneficial, but the reality is that stress gives us access to another “organ” that often remains blocked: our heart. The compassionate heart finds happiness and meaning by connecting with others and, yes, if adrenaline makes us pump our heart harder, oxytocin also increases the diameter of our vessels so that stress gives us strength and energy to improve the situation.
We can trust ourselves to manage life’s challenges, reaffirming that we don’t have to face them alone.