Listening to “experts” is always a fascinating experience—I notice myself being enthralled, not always by what they’re saying but by how well they present themselves! …Generally speaking anyway. Such an art form, really, and one I’ve yet to perfect.
I had the opportunity to hear an expert last night—John Gray, author of Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus, among many other books. He was part of a weekend event for couples—their keynote speaker, in fact. I was scheduled to speak directly after him, integrating some relationship theory and movement practices to increase intimacy into my presentation of “Becoming Embodied with Our Intimate Partners.”
Gray shared some concepts and evidence-based theory that, when I heard it, had a strong impact in my mental circuitry as well as in my gut. There were things he stated that I agreed with and others that literally made my insides begin to go into hyper-vigilance and scream to the audience members, “Don’t listen to him! That’s not true!”
One of the first things I want to touch on is the idea that “oxytocin increases cortisol in men,” which John Gray stated as fact, and coupled with the concept that while oxytocin is a bonding hormone for women, it does just the opposite in men, leaving them either fast asleep or anxiety-ridden.
Clarification From the Non-Expert:
There are three primary types of stress hormones—Adrenaline, norephinephrine, and Cortisol. Adrenaline is what we might feel when we experience a sudden threat, when the fight or flight response kicks in, and that sense that we need to protect ourselves in the present moment. It increases our heart rate and helps us focus on what’s most important.
Norepinephrine is similar to adrenaline in that it’s an “immediate response” type of hormone. It supports blood getting to the necessary parts of the body, such as muscles, to support an immediate response to threat. It also acts as a “back up system” to adrenaline if our adrenals are a little tapped out.
Cortisol, on the other hand, occurs when stress is ongoing… for hours, days, weeks, or months. As an evolutionary response, our bodies have learned to create cortisol to counter the effects of long-term stress on the body, by breaking down non-essential organs so as to basically “feed” other more vital tissue. It’s really a survival mechanism. Stress does increase cortisol concentrations but not in that, “Oh my God I’m going to die right now!” kind of way.
Here’s another interesting fact: Oxytocin is also a stress hormone. You may be asking, why is that? Why would the hormone necessary for bonding and attachment, for those yummy feelings of connection, to be released during stress? Well, some theorize that oxytocin is released during stress because we’re simply not wired to deal with stress–or life–alone. We’re wired to feel connected and held and supported. Oxytocin is a hormone that will support what we most need–relationship with others.
Gray’s idea that the release of oxytocin would necessitate a cortisol response makes no sense—at least to me. The release of oxytocin, first of all, would have to take place over time to create the necessary physiological response requiring cortisol to begin breaking down vital organs to maintain blood sugar, and keep a man’s (person’s) body functioning when he’s in survival mode. Now granted, a post-coital response can certainly trigger a need to go into survival mode (probably more related to adrenaline), for some, due to certain insecure attachment styles and lack of comfort with intimacy, but to negate the overall counter-effects of oxytocin on the entire stress system is simply irresponsible (in my humble opinion).
Ultimately, what we know about oxytocin is that it directly counters the release of other stress hormones, including cortisol—in BOTH genders by moving us toward necessary connection, which ultimately soothes the nervous system. The more we experience relationally-oriented activities, such as sex with intimate partners, and feel the release of oxytocin; the more we strengthen and even increase oxytocin receptors in the brain. We literally “build” the neural pathways related to the foundation of what scientists deem LOVE—from a neurochemical perspective anyway.
Oxytocin is a unique neurochemical that way. (Here… take a peak. Pretty huh?)
…So even if an individual struggles with feeling “comfortable” with intimate connection that contributes to oxytocin release, continued practice—yes PRACTICE—will increase, not only that individuals comfort, but actual brain chemistry and “wiring” that allows for the benefits!
To counter Gray: Some men (or women) may have an increase in adrenaline after climax with a partner, due to insecure attachment and experience of newfound intimacy, and finding themselves beyond their normal comfort zone. And the simultaneous release of oxytocin can, and most often does, powerfully counter that process.
…and the Research says
Gray referenced that when men were injected with oxytocin, they had an increase in cortisol. This is confusing as the research states that oxytocin doesn’t cross the blood brain barrier, except in the form of nasal spray. However, the use of spray on a long-term basis for research caused amnesia, hallucinations, and imbalances in hormones and electrolytes and was, as the research implies, long-term, and so has a more understandable connection to cortisol. Maybe this is what he’s referring to. However, this research actually applies to both men and women as well. I wonder if this might be one of those areas where an “expert” has taken some liberty with research so as to defend his position.
Another scientific theory regarding oxytocin, researched by Dr. Jay Zak, is that those people—primarily men in his research—who were found to be lacking “trust-ability” in their intimate relationships were those same people who had fewer oxytocin receptors than most. So if men were to buy in to the ideas of John Gray, denying any benefit of oxytocin for themselves and subsequently sinking into a familiar “disconnect” after sex with a partner rather than deepening the bond through increasing one’s tolerance for post-coital intimacy, there’s a possibility that the chance for strengthening and increasing oxytocin receptors in the brain would be inhibited, thus creating further disconnect and ultimately doing nothing to strengthen the bonds of attachment via lovemaking. Run… on… sen… tance…!
The Journal of Neuroscience reports research done at the University of Bonn, where René Hurlemann and colleagues conducted a study with a group of healthy, heterosexual men; some single and some in committed relationships. The study found that the presence of (administered) oxytocin actually inhibited closer proximity for the men in committed relationships, with an unknown attractive woman. Essentially the study purports that men in committed relationships—those with adequate oxytocin due to their relationships—kept a “safer” distance with an attractive woman they didn’t know. Hence, the research suggests that oxytocin may establish a greater sense of intimacy and attachment, and foster fidelity in committed relationships! Clearly, this research would counter the ungrounded ideas of John Gray.
Gray also had the ….I’ll just say it, audacity to make the claim that after men have sex with a woman, his drive to be with her further is automatically inhibited by the lack of newness and excitement, therefore he will always be looking toward the next best thing. Now, clearly we have all experienced this idea, whether from media, movies, our own relationships, or fear of relationship. And there is science that espouses a dramatically different theory—that when men and women (both) experience climax with one another, and oxytocin is released, those experiences literally lay the foundation for love and a desire for increased intimacy and sexual gratification with that partner. There are certainly a variety of other relational components that lead people to buy into the idea that men are consistently on the lookout. But let’s get clear on the facts folks!
This from Wikipedia:
“Oxytocin evokes feelings of contentment, reductions in anxiety, and feelings of calmness and security around the mate. Many studies have already shown a correlation of oxytocin with human bonding, increases in trust, and decreases in fear. One study confirmed a positive correlation between oxytocin plasma levels and an anxiety scale measuring the adult romantic attachment. This suggests oxytocin may be important for the inhibition of the brain regions associated with behavioral control, fear, and anxiety, thus allowing orgasm to occur.”
Oxytocin is even thought to promote wound healing, among contributing to other health benefits. Some research is now looking into the effects of social bonding to increase overall health in men and women. The preliminary research is being done with rats, of course, so we can’t be certain. But the results look promising! And as isolated as many of us are these days, knowing that increases in oxytocin can ameliorate some of the negative effects of social isolation on physical health is yet another reason to get as much as we can!
When our “relational circuitry” feels soothed by the presence of certain neurochemicals such as oxytocin, and this occurs again and again, when we are in the presence of someone we love, we can become more comfortable “in our bodies.”—And with so much of our current lives taking place “from the neck up,” in this fast paced age of information in which we’re living; when we become more embodied with our partners, our ability to regulate our emotions and develop a “learned” secure attachment becomes possible.
Like I said, however, I’m no expert! So get curious and do some of your own research—both the didactic as well as the embodied kind! And let me know what you come up with!
For the Love of Your Life,