Oxytocin and the Power Of Touch In Building Connection
Most people have heard that touch and eye contact are incredibly important during social, professional or romantic interactions because they fuel connection and bonding. But what most people don’t know, is why. The answer lies in a powerful hormone and neurotransmitter which can positively change human behaviour–oxytocin.
In this post, you’ll find out what oxytocin is, why it’s important and how to use it to your advantage when trying to build connection, or for personal wellbeing.
What is Oxytocin?
The ‘Cuddle Hormone’
Oxytocin is a powerful hormone and neurotransmitter–hormones travel through the blood and neurotransmitters carry messages through the brain and nervous system. It’s associated with care, connection and empathy.
It’s released in the body in large quantities when a woman gives birth, during breastfeeding and orgasm. It’s also released during social interactions that involve touch and eye contact. Nicknamed the ‘cuddle hormone’, oxytocin is essential for building relationships and bonding due to its anti-anxiety effect which helps to increase attachment and empathy.
The release of oxytocin improves wellbeing and reduces stress, over time, contributing to improved health and longevity.
Oxytocin Influences Behaviour
When your body releases oxytocin, your behaviour and emotion change, you potentially become more generous, caring and trusting. That’s great, but what’s even better is creating those behaviours in others. Imagine meeting your ideal partner or client and potentially being able to make them more generous, caring and trusting!
That said, it doesn’t happen for everyone–five percent of the population don’t release oxytocin. According to Paul Zak, an American neuroeconomist, these are often people who have not had enough nurturing during childhood or those who have been abused.
Increased levels of testosterone and high levels of stress (cortisol) can also inhibit oxytocin release. You may have seen this in others or noticed yourself that when you are highly stressed your empathy is reduced. You might have to work a little harder at building a connection with people who are stressed and those with high testosterone levels.
To watch to Paul Zak’s TED Talk and learn more about oxytocin and behaviour, scroll down to the video at the bottom of the page.
How to Increase Oxytocin
There are other ways to induce oxytocin release in your body including dancing, praying (only if you’re religious), soaking in a hot tub, eating, experiencing warmer temperatures and even using social media.
As a Body Language Specialist, I’m interested in those related to nonverbal communication and interaction–eye contact and touch–and how we can use these to improve the experience of those we interact with, as well as improving our own experience. In this article, we’re going to focus on touch and will save eye contact for a later date.
Touch and Oxytocin
Animals, Pets, People, Cuddles and Oxytocin
We don’t yet know the exact mechanisms of how it all works, but we do know that touch induces oxytocin release. I want to talk about human interaction, but I have to mention the value in cuddling a pet–for both you and them–as they feel it too.
When I’m not working, I’m usually hanging out with my husband or our cat. It’s only occasionally that I get to see family, as both our families live on the other side of the world. I have a number of close friends, but the time I see them in person is minimal too. I’m hugely introverted and so minimise time with local friends, as otherwise, I’ll be worn out. Fortunately, they understand this.
While I have few opportunities for oxytocin filled hugs from friends and family, I do get plenty of cuddles from my husband, stepdaughter and cat, not to mention the daily neck or foot rubs from my husband. For all of these, I consider myself very lucky–I feel fully charged with oxytocin.
Take a moment to review your opportunities for oxytocin release, where do you get yours from–a partner, friends, family, pets. Do you have enough to make you feel fulfilled? If not, can you increase opportunities–without freaking people, or animals, out? It does wonders for wellbeing and longevity.
Pet Therapy and Companion Animals
Massage and cuddles are fantastic ways to get a rush of oxytocin coursing through your blood and nervous system and so are pet cuddles. Because of this, animals are sometimes brought into hospitals and care homes as pet therapy, and many people have companion animals to aid anxiety and mental health issues. Cuddles aside, animals also play a huge role in providing company for people who are lonely.
An unfortunate consequence of ageing is that social touching decreases, the older we get. One reason is that friends and partners have dropped off along life’s journey, leaving fewer opportunities for touch, but another sad reason is that younger people are more reluctant to touch older people. Companion animals and pets brought in as pet therapy can fill the touch gap, providing a much-needed release of oxytocin.
Power of Touch: Body Language
Building Connection–at Home
The people in your life that you already have a close connection hopefully give you opportunities for touch–make the most of these where you can to refuel that connection. Relationships that aren’t working–marriages and partnerships–typically involve less touch than they did previously. This won’t help a failing relationship, so I encourage an increase in touch if you’re open to working on the relationship. It won’t solve all issues, but it can help nudge you to rebuild connection and feeling togetherness.
A good indicator of feelings and togetherness is how you touch each other. When you hold hands or touch your partner’s arm or shoulder, do you use your full palm or just your fingertips? Fingertips equate to less emotional connection. Palms show emotional warmth and connectedness. Both of these can also be seen in friendships.
I’ll never forget the last time I saw my ex, months after we had separated, he’d given me a lift to a train station. As my train pulled in for the airport, we said our goodbyes. He reached out to rub my shoulder, I noticed the difference in the touch–there was no palm, only fingertips. It was a mutual separation with no hard feelings–social touch was still present, but without the warmth of the romantic relationship we’d shared years before. We’d made the right decision.
Building Connection–Socially and Professionally
Touch can be a touchy subject concerning what’s appropriate and what isn’t in social and professional settings, so let me give you some clarity. According to this study, for ‘strangers’ and ‘acquaintances’, the only safe area to touch is the hands. That means that handshakes, high fives and other hand touch greetings are all appropriate means of touch–but all within context. High fives can be too casual at times, and sometimes a handshake feels too formal, so use them within the appropriate settings.
While some people are comfortable with being touched on their arms, a lot of people aren’t. Put simply, the higher up the arm, the more intimate it becomes. Other areas of the body are out of bounds for strangers and acquaintances. Positive and powerful nonverbal communication is all about making people feel comfortable with you. Therefore, it’s best to stay on the safe side and stick to hand touch. That’s unless it’s with a ‘friend’.
Once you’ve formed a relationship with someone and they are elevated into a close friendship category, the arms, head, shoulders and upper back open up as safe areas–that can include hugs. It’s interesting to note that the pattern of areas which are safe with friends, is similar to that with mothers–slightly less so for fathers.
While the study gives us fantastic insight into the safe areas of touch, we have to remember that this is a generalised view–an amalgamation of reports of preference from participants around the world. There are people with preferences that fall outside of this norm. We need to remember that some people are not comfortable with touch and close proximity, even when they are considered to be a close friend. We should respect their feelings in our quest to provide them comfort.
We should also note that there are cultural differences too. What’s the norm in one culture may not be in another. I’m not an expert in cultural body language. My knowledge lies in the universal language of the body, that is, the innate nonverbal signals and responses that are within everybody, regardless of culture. Oxytocin release is the universal element of what we are discussing here, not the type of touch or gestural greeting which differs across cultures.
Thanks to this study, we have generalised knowledge that the hands are safe areas to touch and other regions may cause discomfort. We also know that touch promotes oxytocin release in the body. We can leverage from this knowledge by facilitating oxytocin release, via some means of appropriate touch. Appropriate in terms of safe areas and cultural norms.
The main point is if you have an opportunity to touch the person that you interact with, without making them feel discomfort from awkwardness or inappropriate touch, then go for it. Most likely, this will increase oxytocin levels within both of you, helping to foster a more positive interaction and therefore, a more positive relationship going forward.
Oxytocin and Dopamine
Oxytocin causes the release of another neurotransmitter–dopamine. Dopamine is associated with pleasure, reward and motion–it’s another feel-good hormone. Remember oxytocin is associated with care, connection and empathy and can potentially promote generous, caring and trusting behaviours.
So when you create these feelings and behaviours in the people you interact with, potential clients, partner, etc., via touch and the facilitation of oxytocin release, dopamine then kicks in–associating you with pleasure. After experiencing this once, the next time they meet you the association happens quicker, and a more positive interaction and relationship can develop.
Self Soothing Behaviours
We’ve talked about touching other people but what about self-touch?
We release oxytocin within our body when we touch ourselves. That’s why self-touching increases during times of stress and discomfort. Our brain perceives a threat, and our body responds with an attempt to bring feelings of comfort. Self-touch increases, usually seen as face-touching, arm rubbing, neck touching, thigh rubbing, finger or nail-biting–an almost endless list of self-soothing behaviours. Even movements with the tongue on the lips, or within the mouth, act to facilitate the release of oxytocin. The oxytocin brings comfort with its soothing, calming effect. This process occurs on a subconscious level, the majority of people aren’t even aware of their self-touch.
This is a fantastic mechanism. However, self-touch is perceived negatively by the people that you interact with-whether picked up consciously or subconsciously. It’s best to actively work on avoiding it if you want to create feelings of comfort with the people that you interact with–that’s if you want to get the most out of your interactions.
Its perceived negatively primarily because of its association with nervousness and anxiety. When we outwardly show stress and anxiety, via nonverbal behaviours, we signal to others that something isn’t right. While this is good in some respects, for example indicating to others that we may need help, it isn’t good when we see it in the people we believe to be our leaders.
Many people in leadership positions may be concealing their feelings via the words that they speak. However, their nonverbal signals outwardly indicate how they really feel. This can have a dramatic effect on their ‘followers’ who take on those feelings of fear and anxiety. The verbal messages that everything is okay, and it’s business as usual, lose their meaning.
Another reason these self-soothing behaviours, and other stress indicators, leave a negative emotion in others, is due to mirror neurons. Without our awareness, our mirror neurons fire, and we mimic the expressions, body language and vocal quality of the people we interact with. As this happens, we start to feel their emotion. This is the basis of empathy. Their stress behaviours rub off on us, and we’re left with feelings of discomfort.
I ask most people that I work with to self-audit themselves to work out what their personal self-soothing behaviours are. We all have one or two that we display regularly. Often these have turned into habits and are present, even when stress isn’t. Most of the people I work with have no idea that they do their particular behaviours and are surprised at the revelation that they display these to their colleagues and clients, often.
Your first step in reducing these behaviours is awareness. Become aware of other people’s behaviours and your own. Once you see these behaviours in yourself, stop them in real time each time you find yourself doing them. You’ll have to do this over and over again before you can quit the habit.
Oxytocin, Touch and Building Connection
Oxytocin is good for you and the people you interact with.
It can be released through touch.
It’s associated with care, connection and empathy.
Touch interaction with pets and animals can also trigger oxytocin release.
Incorporate appropriate touch into your interactions to promote generosity, caring and trusting.
Work on avoiding self-touch in public to avoid leaving others with a negative experience.