Why are some people more able to deal with stress than others, why can some people walk into a room full of strangers and start chatting straight away? Why does exercising in a group feel better than exercising alone. Why does a hug from a friend when you are feeling down make you feel instantly happier? Well, it seems that calmness under pressure or an ability to socialise could all come down to a matter of chemistry.

Oxytocin has long been associated with sexual reproduction and childbirth, but the naturally produced chemical has now been accredited with far more positives than just a good sex life and a dilated cervix during birth. It is believed that oxytocin alters activity in a part of the brain that makes us feel good. It has been the subject of a range of studies over the past 20 years because of its association with human bonding, in particular the role it plays in sexual reproduction. However, a recent study from Stanford University School of Medicine shown that oxytocin is involved in a much broader range of social connections than previously thought. The researchers discovered that oxytocin released through any type of social connectivity triggered the release of serotonin, the hormone that makes us feel happy and good about ourselves.

Originally, oxytocin was thought to be solely related to sex; released during orgasm and then responsible for the dilation of the cervix during birth. While these are important enough functions as it is, now it is believed that oxytocin increases our levels of social behaviour, promotes group cohesion and helps us control anxiety.

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This last point is an interesting one. A study carried out in 2010, demonstrated that people with a higher level of oxytocin dealt with stressful situations better, and the people with higher levels of the hormone were generally more affectionate people; simply put, they hugged a lot more.

So, if we want to feel happy and calm, are there ways we can boost our natural levels of oxytocin?

Having sex is the obvious answer, but that is not the only way to release this powerful little hormone. Here are some simple ways that you can increase your levels of oxytocin, out of the bedroom:

1. Change your handshake. When you shake hands with someone, use both hands. Grip in the conventional manner, but then cover the hands with your other one, this makes the whole experience warmer and more intimate.

2. Watch a sad movie. When you feel empathy with a character your oxytocin levels fly off the chart, leaving you feeling emotionally drained, but relaxed.

3. Exercise with a friend. The stress created when you exercise is reduced if you exercise with a friend. The feeling of companionship and “we are in this together” result from the release of oxytocin.

4. Do a thrill-seeking activity with a friend. By putting yourself in a situation of perceived danger, such as a bungee jump, or abseiling down a  building,  you are raising stress levels. When you share the risk with a friend, you create a really strong bond.

5. Tell someone you love them. Not just your nearest and dearest, but friends and family too. Avoid taking this too far, you could end up in trouble!

6. Get on social media. Although social media gets a bad rap as the antithesis of social connections, in fact it has been proven to raise oxytocin levels as people interact with each other. Social media interaction does not create the same level of hormone release as actual contact, but it still provokes a rise in brain activity.

So there you have it: hug a hoodie or kiss a granny and you’ll feel much happier.

 

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