Why Spending Time With Friends Boosts Your Oxytocin

mbg Contributor By Debbie Hampton
mbg Contributor
Debbie Hampton recovered from decades of unhealthy thinking and depression, a suicide attempt, and resulting brain injury to become an educational and inspirational writer.

When you're depressed, it can feel easier to retreat inward into the world of your depression, rather than reach out to others and seek healthy distractions. You might find yourself withdrawing from friends and family, doing work at home rather than at your local coffee shop, quitting the gym, or doing just about anything else you used to enjoy that requires being around other people.

In this way, feeling depressed is often cyclical: feelings of loneliness breed further loneliness. Why? Depression is an isolating disease that can make you feel alone even in the middle of a crowd. And often, those suffering from depression actually end up physically separating themselves from others. This desire for solitude is neurochemical: it's the byproduct of a depressed brain, and it only further contributes to the downward spiral.

At our most elemental level, humans are social animals. Our brains evolved to ensure our survival, and they operate best when we interact and connect with others. Science has proven that social exchanges change the neurotransmitter and circuit activity in your brain which decreases stress, anxiety, and depressive symptoms and ups those calm and happy feelings.

With that in mind, let's consider "the depressed brain." When someone is suffering from depression, their oxytocin (the love and bonding neurochemical) levels are out of whack. Oxytocin both influences and is influenced by depression.

So in a "depressed brain," oxytocin can sometimes be released when it shouldn't be, or too little is released when it should be. This is why depression alters our relationship to social interaction: the brain secretes oxytocin in response to physical touch, when someone shows trust in you, and sometimes just in conversation or when around other people.

The positive effects of upping oxytocin are most likely because oxytocin supports your brain's serotonin, the feel good neurochemical. Many serotonin producing neurons also have oxytocin receptors; when oxytocin is released, serotonin gets a boost too. Plus, oxytocin also calms the reactivity of the amygdala, the fear center of your brain, and strengthens its communication with brain circuits that help you control emotions.

It's tough to want to be social when suffering from depression. But making the effort to connect with others even when your desire is to self-isolate can yield great results.

Studies have even shown that having the support of friends and family causes antidepressants to work more successfully. As people's depression improved, their social support networks did too, building even more positive momentum. In other words, being social helps you pull out of depression, and getting better helps you be more social. It's a real win/win.

To summarize (and simplify) greatly, depression is a dysfunction in the communication between your brain’s frontal lobe, your thinking brain, and limbic system which controls autonomic bodily functions, like breathing and heart beat, and endocrine function, particularly in response to emotional stimuli. Research has shown that emotional support enhances activity in the frontal lobe and turns down the response of the limbic system.

Social support comes in many forms — phone calls, emails, Facebook comments, even text messages — and can help provide support and counteract feelings of loneliness, isolation, inadequacy, rejection and other states associated with depression. Sometimes, just having one person rooting for you when you feel like the whole world is against you, can make all the difference.

Support can also be in the form of a mental health professional. While friends and family can be of invaluable benefit when dealing with depression, talking with a therapist has distinct advantages. Studies have shown that for some patients, talking with a therapist can be just as successful as antidepressants (with roughly 50% of subjects showing substantial improvement).

Of course, medication can be necessary for certain cases of depression, and it's essential to seek advice from your healthcare professional. Regardless, seeking support from others is bound to bolster your healing journey. Remember: it's chemical! Interacting with other people can play a big role in preventing and decreasing depression by helping to up and normalize oxytocin levels.

Here are some easy ways to get the brain benefits of socializing:

1. Give or get a hug.

A long hug causes your brain to release oxytocin and calms your fear center — plus it just makes you feel warm and fuzzy. (A handshake also does the trick with your co-workers who might not appreciate a hug.)

2. Get a massage.

Most of us think that massages are just fancy spa treatments, but they are much more than that. Getting a massage activates the oxytocin system and causes your brain to release endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine while reducing cortisol, the stress hormone. It also helps you sleep better and just feels yummy. Make it part of your self-care routine ASAP!

3. Get busy between the sheets.

In addition to boosting immunity, having sex can lower stress, increase endorphins, your body's natural painkillers, and give oxytocin levels a big boost. Enough said.

4. Simply be around other people.

If you start to feel your mood slipping, go somewhere where you’re simply around other people, like a coffee shop or bookstore. You don’t even have to interact with them to benefit; just being in the same physical space works to reset your mindset. Of course, chatting or chilling with a friend has even more brain benefits, but do what feels comfortable.

5. Do an activity with a friend.

If you don’t feel like talking, try scheduling a date with a friend where you won’t feel pressured to talk, like going to the movies or a concert. You'll still benefit from the connectedness, and if you do feel like opening up, you can.

6. Help yourself by helping others.

Sometimes it can feel hard to reach out for a helping hand, but what about being the helping hand? Studies show that volunteering improves depressive symptoms and increases positive emotions. Plus, it's a distraction and helps get you out of your own mental routine.

7. Keep it simple: just reach out.

This doesn't need to be a long conversation or involved in-person hangout. Simply make it a point to stay in contact with friends and family. Call regularly, text, meet for coffee or a casual dinner. Stay connected.

8. Touch a pet.

Just stroking your pet can increase oxytocin, endorphins, and dopamine in your brain. Don't have a pet? No prob. You get the same advantages with someone else's!

9. Root for a sports team.

Cheering for your favorite team isn’t just fun, it helps you engage with others in a collective way, which keeps your brain happy. Getting wrapped up in the game provides a sense of community — even if your team loses.

Creating an upward spiral with oxytocin isn't always a straight shot and upping levels doesn't always automatically cure everyone's problems right away. Make sure the people you choose to connect with are helpful, upbeat, and encouraging of you. Happiness (or any other mood) is contagious and can spread like the common cold among social networks — even electronically.

How do you like to connect with others? Share in the comments below.

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