Two weeks ago I participated alongside my children in the global climate strike in San Francisco. All around me, people of all ages were bonded in a shared experience, looking straight at the unfolding catastrophe that is climate change. We felt connected to people all around the world.
As I consider our collective response to climate change, I am prompted to reflect on the human stress response. Human beings are biologically programmed to respond to stress as part of our survival mechanism; when stressed, we are flooded with hormones that support fight or flight, including the stress hormone cortisol. Yet we are also neurohormonally wired to respond to stress by strengthening social bonds—by tending and befriending.
Understanding and cultivating our capacity to respond to stress in a “tend and befriend” way could be key to improving our health. Just as we know that social isolation shortens lives, evidence also shows that warm and good relationships lengthen lives. The more connected we are, the better we are able to cope with stress.
The hormone oxytocin is key in promoting bonding and connectivity. It heightens our ability to respond to facial expressions and other nonverbal cues, and it decreases mistrust. Oxytocin promotes an overall sense of wellbeing with a calming effect on our bodies: it lowers cortisol levels, blood pressure and anxiety.
The production of oxytocin gave our ancestors an evolutionary advantage. To survive infancy, a baby requires a nurturing mother, and a mother and infant will have a better chance at survival if they are connected to others.
Going forward, I wonder what pressures climate change will exert on our ongoing evolution. Will those who are skilled in connection, healthy self-soothing and the fierce protection of what they love have a survival advantage?
Studies show that those with higher oxytocin levels and stronger social support have better problem-solving skills and more effective coping strategies when faced with a psychosocial stressor. By cultivating the internal resource that is oxytocin, we can experience these benefits.
Oxytocin is released under many circumstances, both pleasurable and intense. Most famously, perhaps, it is associated with labor and childbirth, responsible for the intense uterine contractions that move the baby out into the world. It is also released when a mother feels her baby’s skin on hers, allowing for the milk-ejection response that happens nursing. Oxytocin is also released during the intimacy that can lead to pregnancy in the first place, but it is available to us under many other conditions, too.
Special touch receptors on our skin lead to oxytocin release from hugging, touching and the sensation of warmth. Petting a dog raises oxytocin levels in both the human and the dog; when petting is accompanied by gazing into the eyes of our pet, the level goes up by as much as 300 percent.
Eye gazing between humans is also powerful. As social creatures, it feels good to sustain eye contact, particularly with someone who is present and listening to us without a phone or other screen in their hand. Expressing and receiving gratitude raises oxytocin, too. Eating a delicious, nourishing meal with full mindful awareness of the sensual pleasure that brings also releases oxytocin. Sharing it with another enhances the benefit.
The more we strengthen the bonds that connect us, the more pleasurable and healthier our lives become. Offer to walk a friend’s dog, give your partner a massage, begin work meetings with an expression of gratitude, be fully engaged while listening and ask permission to give people a hug when you feel moved to do so.
In this time of epidemic stress, we can apply the “tend and befriend” response to break down what separates “us” from “them” and dismantle the societal constructs that lead us to perceive some humans as other. As we navigate the collective challenge of climate change, tending and befriending may be a great comfort, indeed. It may also serve in our evolution.
Dr. Anna O’Malley is an integrative family and community medicine physician at the Coastal Health Alliance and the director of Natura Institute for Ecology and Medicine in the Commonweal Garden.