That can be quite a mind-bending idea to get your head around, but I want to share with you over the next couple of posts some of the scientific research into the emotion of compassion, which shows this triple effect on human health very clearly.
The following information comes from an essay in the compendium on bridging the link between compassion and science, called ‘Mind your hormones!’
In that essay, the author writes:
“Of all human emotions and behaviours, compassion may be the most hormonal…many scientific studies find strong evidence that compassion and its constituent components, such as empathy, are both influenced by endocrine factors, and influence them in turn.”
(I’m picking the main bits out for your delight and delectation here, but please feel free to go and read it for yourself, too).
The authors also explain that there’s often a very close link between hormones in the body and neurotransmitters in the Central Nervous System, with some substances acting as both at once. “A classic example of this is the peptide hormone oxcytocin….Oxcytocin is produced primarily in the hypothalamus…oxcytocin has profound effects on the brain directly related to social behavior, including empathy.”
Now, oxcytocin happens to be one of the more famous hormones (especially around Valentine’s day) because it’s also known as the ‘bonding hormone’, or the substance that makes people feel close to others, caring and cared for.
As you might expect, woman typically have much higher levels of oxytocin than men, and thrive on activities that focus on relaxed nurturing activities like hanging out with friends, sharing quality time with their kids and having bubble baths.
What kills the oxytocin levels in women is stress – and particularly the sort of testosterone-fuelled chronic stress of trying to hold down a challenging career. While men thrive on the cut and thrust that often characterizes the world of work (because they biologically need more testosterone to feel good, normal and ‘manly’) – hormonally-speaking, women don’t.
The stress boosts their testosterone levels, wipes out their oxytocin, and leaves them feeling irritable, wrung out and highly-strung – just in time to greet Junior as he comes home from a long day of school! When women have low oxytocin levels going on, they simply haven’t got the hormonal werewithal to reach out to others, to bond with them, and to empathize.
If that happens occasionally, it’s not a big deal. But if that’s happening every single day, then sooner or later the cracks are going to start showing in the family edifice in a big way. I know these are huge ideas, particularly for two-income families that depend on the wife working simply to pay the mortgage, and continue to meet the bills every month.
This phenomenon could have a lot to do with the 'emotional neglect' we keep hearing about in various studies, as a big reason why so many of our children are growing up with emotional and mental difficulties.
This week, we'll take more of a look at how a lack of oxytocin could be underneath a whole bunch of mental health issues, and then I'll share some practical ideas with you for how you can start to boost your oxytocin levels (if you're a woman) and why too much oxytocin isn't so helpful for the men part of the relationship equation, and how that can also affect our kids.