Your Brain on Stress vs. Your Brain on Love: Love Wins

Have you ever heard the saying, stress makes you stupid?"  Here's why.  Chronic stress shrinks your brain and physically reduces the ability to think clearly.  When we sense danger, the  endocrine system floods the body with cortisol, and other neurotransmitters that give us an extra burst of energy or focus.  You feel your heart beat in your throat, you become hyper aware of everything around you, and feel pumped.  After the immediate danger has passed, a healthy body gathers up all of the “stress hormones,” and we relax again.  The human body is not, however, designed to be in a state of perpetual stress and continue to stay healthy.

Cortisol, the Stress Hormone Wreaks Havoc on the Brain

In today’s world, the flood of stress-induced cortisol continues day in and day out.  An argument with a partner, traffic, worrying about money and bills, even social media -- all  keep the stress chemicals elevated continuously.  When cortisol is elevated, our bodies don’t digest food, make rational decisions, or succumb to sleep.  That makes a lot of sense in the presence of say, a large predator, but not so much if we are worked up over a Tweet. The primary neurotransmitter in this chain of events is cortisol.  A high level of cortisol over long periods of time wreaks havoc on the brain, creating changes in the physical structure and function of the brain.  It increases the activity level in the amygdala, the fear center of the brain – literally increasing the brain’s capacity for fear.  Meanwhile, over in the hippocampus – the part of the brain responsible for learning, memories, and stress control – neuronal connections deteriorate from too much cortisol.  reducing the body’s ability to turn OFF stress reactions. To make things worse, too much cortisol can actually shrink the size of the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for “thinking.”  Fewer neuronal connections, shrinking brain size, and reduced functions in the “thinking/learning” parts of the brain are bad news.

Your Brain on Love

Love and nurturing can have the opposite effect on the brain. When we fall in love, we get plenty of dopamine, the feel-good neurotransmitter.  In the early stages of a romantic relationship, the brain does release cortisol, giving you the rush of excitement, but without “chronic stress” the brain can regulate dopamine and cortisol release, and soon moves on to other long-term healthy stress-reducing chemicals, like oxytocin (nicknamed the “love hormone”).  When we experience love – of all kinds, not just romantic love -- neurochemicals like dopamine and oxytocin flood our brains in areas associated with pleasure and rewards, producing physical and psychological responses like less perceived pain, lower blood pressure, and calmness.

Oxytocin, the Love Hormone, Heals the Negative Effects of Stress on the Brain

In contrast to the negative effect of elevated cortisol, love helps the brain to function healthily.  Contact with those we love triggers the brain to release oxytocin, which increases happiness while lowering stress and anxiety.  This happens with all kinds of love including parental care, friendships, and all kinds of long-term relationships, not just the romantic kind.  Oxytocin can heal the negative effects of excessive cortisol in the areas of the brain – like the hippocampus and amygdala – that are involved in motivation, emotion, learning, and memory. Cuddling, hugging, and kissing one you love can instantly reduce stress and increase feelings of calm, trust, and security thanks to oxytocin, while your mood improves as a result of your reward center flooding with dopamine. You feel happier, safer, and less stressed.  A proven way to increase oxytocin production is the “20-second hug.”  That’s right… just hug someone for a solid 20 seconds. It will give your brain a break from stress, feel good, and improve relationships.  Everyone has 20 seconds.