Oxytocin, stress and the brain: Make stress your friend
Stress can be our friend. Yup, you heard that right. Every response in our body serves to establish a balance in our chemical, physical, and psychological health, even a stress response. Read more about your positive stress and familiarize yourself with evidence-based techniques that can help you deal with stress in a healthy way.
Be on the lookout for beneficial stress
Usually, stress represents an overall unhealthy body response, but with the rise of positive psychology in the last few years, more research shows that positive stress, called eustress can be an overall healthy and positive thing in our lives. Eustress is the exact opposite of distress. It refers to any type of beneficial stress. Eustress is typically short-term and feels exciting. Imagine going into an interview for your first job. At first, you usually feel uncomfortable with a knot of butterflies in your stomach. It feels like having a lump stuck in your throat, but soon after some light conversation with your future boss, you can have a productive and confident interview. Eustress is exactly that. It can motivate us and help us focus on the task at hand.
What are the effects of stress on the brain? The first step in the brain’s stress response is the perception of a stressor. When a situation is perceived as a threat, the brain encourages several groups of neurons to carry out a specific function, such as the release of stress hormones: adrenaline, cortisol, and noradrenaline[1,2]. However, the perception of different types of stressors requires the engagement of different groups of neurons. And how we perceive a stressor depends highly on ourselves. Part of the theory of eustress is the so-called ‘control theory’ which explains that our stress outcomes are majorly influenced by our perspective[1,2]. For instance, imagine getting anxious, and trying to take a moment to compose yourself by taking a few deep breaths. After a few moments of self-reflection, you’ll usually be able to reassess your situation and come back to it with a clear mind. This ability to overcome moments of stress and redirect that negative energy into something positive and productive, such as motivation and feelings of fulfilment, satisfaction, and well-being, is the power of the control theory with eustress[2,3,4]. Read further and learn about healthy ways to deal with stress.
Stress means your body is helping you rise to the challenge
So what if you view stress as a sign that your body is energised? That it is preparing you to meet the challenge?
That is how Harvard University researchers, who conducted an interesting study, explained what stress was to the participants. They were taught to rethink their stress response as helpful: a pounding heart is preparing you for action, and faster breathing is helping you get more oxygen to your brain. Results showed that participants who learned to view the stress response as helpful were calmer and more confident.
The stress response of a person who views it as helpful is also likely to increase the task performance of an individual and act as a modulator of memory processes and human learning. For example, when stress is closely related to a student’s course material, memory capacity, and information retention, the student will remember information faster and more effectively, resulting in faster memory and information recall.
Courage is the new stress
In a typical stress response, your heart rate goes up, and your blood vessels constrict which is why stress is usually considered unhealthy. So, how can our perception of stress change that? While the heart of the participants who viewed their stress response as helpful, was still pounding, their blood vessels stayed relaxed[5,6,7]. This response is very similar to the effects that joy and courage have on our bodies.
Hardiness beautifully sums up how a change of perspective can be effective. It is defined as a “combination of attitudes that provides the courage and motivation to do the hard, strategic work of turning stressful circumstances from potential disasters into growth opportunities”. And when you view stress in that way, your body believes you and your stress response becomes healthier.
Oxytocin: “the love hormone”
Oxytocin is a hormone and a brain messenger, meaning it coordinates different functions in your brain and body by carrying messages to brain cells and through your blood to your organs, muscles and other tissues. Oxytocin signals your body what to do and when to do it. So when does oxytocin start to release, and what is the “love hormone” trying to tell your body?
Oxytocin is primarily produced in the centre of your brain and is then released into your bloodstream. In the brain, oxytocin functions as a messenger. When is oxytocin released? It plays a major role in many human behaviours, including sexual arousal, recognition, trust, romantic attachment and mother-infant bonding. As a result, oxytocin is called the “love hormone” or “cuddle chemical”. It is often grouped with dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins. They form the so-called “happiness chemicals” group.
Oxytocin has been recognized for its role in female reproduction[9,10,11]. It is released in large amounts during labour, lactation, and after stimulation of the nipples. It is a facilitator for childbirth and breastfeeding. However, recent studies have begun researching oxytocin's role in various behaviours[12,13,14,15,16,17].
For our body to be able to excrete oxytocin, we’ve got to supply it with the right nutrients: magnesium, vitamin C and vitamin D.
|Found in:||Average nutrition value (mg) per 100g||Dietary Reference Value (DRV) per day for an adult|
|Magnesium||pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, almonds||285||300 for women, 350 for men|
|Vitamin C||Guava, kiwi, papaya, green bell pepper||115[19,20]||75 for women, 90 for men|
|Vitamin D||Salmon, tuna, heavy cream||220[22,23]||0,015|
If you’re struggling to get the right intake of magnesium, vitamin C and D with your diet, you can opt for high-quality supplements. Just make sure you ingest magnesium together with Vitamin C and Vitamin D as magnesium assists in the activation of both vitamins[25,26].
Oxytocin pushes you to seek help and supports you with regulating stress
So, what is the connection between oxytocin and stress? Research results have also exposed oxytocin as a stress hormone: oxytocin levels are high during stressful conditions, such as social isolation and unhappy relationships[15,17].
But when oxytocin is released in the stress response, it is motivating you to seek support: “When the “love hormone” is operating during times of low stress, oxytocin physiologically rewards those who maintain good social bonds with feelings of well-being. But when its levels increase during times of high social stress or pain, this may lead people to seek out more and better social contacts” (Taylor: 32).
Oxytocin also acts on our bodies. One of its main roles is to protect our cardiovascular system from the effects of stress. It helps heart cells regenerate and heal from stress-induced damage. All of these physical benefits of oxytocin are enhanced by social contact and social support. So, you release more of this hormone by reaching out to someone, whether to seek support because you’re under stress or to help someone else deal with it. Your stress response becomes healthier, and you recover faster from stress.
Understanding the link between stress and the brain can help you reframe it. So, go on - change your perception of stress and boost your oxytocin. Help yourself to live a healthier and longer life.
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