An unusual phenomenon is happening as we are, for our own survival needs, being asked to engage in physical distancing (PD). Though it may feel better to say PD rather than saying social distancing, the loss of social custom(s) has significant consequences. We are being encouraged to stop the practice of handshaking and, in more expressive cultures, the embrace of hello or goodbye. Instead, we are now engaging in elbow bumps or the new-age and ancient practice of “namaste”, hands in prayer pose to chest. Many people seem to laugh about this or make humorous commentary to transition from the awkwardness involved in learning new ways of orientating to each other. Behind this awkwardness, we suggest there is another level of loss that we are witnessing. At a social level, we are losing a primal way of engaging others that has been in practice since ancient times.
In our evolution as a species, emotions, are often triggered by the neuro-hormonal wiring connected to our physiologic actions. The gestures of handshaking and the social embrace have evolved to help recognize each other and been cemented into practice because these behaviors trigger the neuropeptide of oxytocin which supports resonance and signs of dissonance which encourages caution. It is well to understand the signs of dissonance which encourage keeping one’s distance. But, this new call to physical distancing may be related to the complaints we are hearing about the numbing effects of social distancing and isolation. Most people will recognize oxytocin, as the hormone which is initiated by the mother-child experience of childbirth and bonding through the nursing experience and physical touch. It is also known that the mere proximity of young babies near both parents will stimulate oxytocin which encourages relational bonding.
But oxytocin is relevant beyond parental love as it connects with other social behaviors that encourage social connection and recognition. Humans are social animals. Our survival depends on our interdependence. Oxytocin is one chemical that fosters the building of connection and stimulates social bonding. The handshake and the greeting embrace, long recognized as forms of immediate interpersonal assessment and recognition, can also be understood as encounters that may stimulate oxytocin.
We question the consequences of physical distancing and the new norm of engaging in technologies that can bring us only together, visually, in a two-dimensional reality. As coaches and process facilitators, we suggest that the need to intentionally develop what we call the oxytocin checklist. We generated a list of gestures in social interactions and at the individual level that could stimulate the “feel-good” connection that oxytocin provokes. Some possible “hits” of oxytocin moments are:
- Making Eye Contact: Make eye contact for 20 seconds with invitations of “let me see you.” Inviting eye contact can also help others to engage and tolerate even twenty seconds of what feels intimate but interpersonally engaging.
- Putting one’s hand on one’s chest and engaging in eye contact: Heart energy is stimulated and concordant feelings of care and respect are provoked.
- Looking to notice and offer appreciative observations or words of encouragement: g. Lately, in grocery stores, one of us makes it a point to thank all the shelf stackers-for being essential workers who benefit so many-reminding them that they are appreciated does make a difference. Ask yourself-“do I offer others a few words of recognition”. It isn’t about a conversation-it’s about sincere recognition.
- Smiling and laughing: Smiling not only increases oxytocin but smiling is contagious to others. For oneself, the brain does not know the difference between a fake smile and a real one. But note, interpersonally, there is evidence that “a real” smile is experienced by others. A fake smile will be experienced with some dissonance, even if the dissonance is subtle. Look for a small reason to offer a “real” smile.
- The generosity of “giving”: Offering gifts of time, listening and concern triggers oxytocin and may be the reason that, back in the 1980s, the saying “random acts of kindness went “viral”. When a “gift” of time, kindness or effort is given without reason or agenda-it is experienced as a gift and triggers oxytocin.
- Sharing music. Listening to or sharing music that is oxytocin triggering – g. Andres Bocelli singing “Canto Della Terra” always opens our hearts-find your music and share with others.
- Sharing inspiring words. Poetry, uplifting news and invitation to create meaningful opportunities. We recommend David Whyte, Mary Oliver, Dawn Markova, Nancy Ross Dunham, Anna Akhmatova-please add what moves you and share with others
- On virtual platforms take time to connect personally. If you are video chatting or working on a video platform be sure to spend the first five minutes having people check in. The check-in builds connection because it brings “here and now” immediacy to each other. Memory lives in the past while anticipation is connected to the future. Brene Brown’s work on vulnerability suggests that the heart waiting to be touched lives in the moment of “now” and oxytocin is triggered when we take a risk of vulnerability with each other-that is what is touched in this little moment of “checking-in”.
- Look for Opportunities to Create “Microboosts”: Our colleague, Linda Hoopes, Ph.D. creator of the Resilience Alliance (http://www.prosilience.com ) suggests keeping your eyes open for ways to give others small positive lifts–a nod and smile, letting a car merge in traffic, complimenting them on something they’re wearing–something that will add a little extra joy to their day. Each “microboost” is a provides a dose of oxytocin and the giver will also feel the boost. This is where the research from our colleagues on resonance and “positive emotional attractors” can make us recognize -how powerful small moments can be that can cause joy in others.
- Make time to connect with others who you care about. Check in with loved ones. Give yourself credit for making the call. People are either more hesitant or more shy than they know. Your call triggers the recognition of being cared for and is another “oxytocin” moment.
- Offer gratitude :The Turkish word “eyvallah” has a threefold meaning of : saying thanks, offering a willingness to help if needed and gratitude for having met. Gratitude given to others serves as an immediate and unfolding sense of oxytocin since the memory of feeling we matter to others continues to stimulate a sense of bonding.
Tips for boosting your own oxytocin levels:
- Be mindful while focusing on others.A form of meditation called “metta,” in which one focuses on loving others, is better at fostering social connections than standard meditation. See: https://www.mettainstitute.org/mettameditation.html
- Research shows that having a dog triggers oxytocin and strengthens the immune system. Pet a dog if you have one or offer or offer dog care help to friends and family members.
- Inviting self- affirmation: Make it a habit to regularly invite an inner narrative which stimulates positive contact with oneself that feels strengthening
- Exercise is known to stimulate the positive inducing hormones of endorphins and oxytocin. You need not go to the gym, you can exercise at home or take a walk, ride your bike. “Use it or lose it” is a reminder to start your car engine every few weeks or the battery gets weak. Our body is a living machine that needs “starting”. Remember, exercise becomes more reinforcing with practice.
- Take a warm bath. The skin is our largest organ and responds to the act of being soothed by warm water. A bath , or a long shower provokes a sense of luxury and oxytocin. This ritual can be combined with meditation for calming and deeply reinforcing the power of gentle self-care.
As we all experience the pandemic crisis to our health, economy and the challenge of self-care, this time offers us the opportunity to find ways to create meaning for ourselves and others in our newly arranged social exchanges. While the pursuit for “happiness” has been an adventure to many, we recommend the search for meaning as one of the great rewards in living. Some of us may wish to ‘dig deeper” into ourselves to search for the moments of recognition, of meaning and joy that will expand the ways to create moments of contact that can pull us all forward. The reality of Covid-19 and its very real dangers can cause fear. Let us do what is needed to protect ourselves and our loved ones. There is no substitute for the disciplined care that safe guards ourselves and others.
The learning that is needed to manage these times, whether in technology or in new work arrangements will cause some discomfort but we should remember that learning is a powerful survival strategy. Growth opportunities live in joining our inner vision to a purpose larger than ourselves and strengthening the oxytocin inducing powers of empathy, compassion and tolerance for others. The power of social bonding is the larger net that holds the world of humanity. And, in our search for each other, we will continue to evolve toward new possibilities.
For more; contact:
Dorothy E. Siminovitch, Ph.D., MCC at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Marcia Feola, M.H.A., MCC. at: email@example.com