As you’re heading into finals week…

…I thought it might be a good time to remind you about my favorite hormone, oxytocin, and some of the ways you might get a bump here and there to offset the stress of studying and taking exams.

Small actions can mean so much.

We’ve talked about how oxytocin promotes trust, connection, and monogamy – all the good relationship stuff. But it may also have another, unexpected effect: improved problem-solving ability (read: better exam scores).

A New York Times article entitled “Evidence That Little Touches Do Mean So Much” talks about the positive effects of small, physical interactions (a touch on the arm, a high-five, etc.). Some of the positive effects are what you’d expect: small touches have been shown to ease pain, soothe depression, deepen a relationship. But here’s something interesting: small touches can also improve mental performance!

How could oxytocin (a “relationship” hormone) have anything to do with personal performance? The article offers an interesting suggestion:

A warm touch seems to set off the release of oxytocin, a hormone that helps create a sensation of trust, and to reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol. In the brain, prefrontal areas, which help regulate emotion, can relax, freeing them for another of their primary purposes: problem solving. In effect, the body interprets a supportive touch as “I’ll share the load.”

So: let’s see more high-fives, more touches on the arm, more secret handshakes. It can’t hurt – especially around exam time!

The benefits of platonic touch – and how men are often left out of the loop.

All the stuff in the news about allegations of sexual misconduct has heightened our awareness of how and when physical touch is appropriate. And that’s a good thing.

But what about platonic touch, and all its attendant health benefits?

Last year around this time, the New York Times published an article entitled “The Power of Touch, Especially for Men.” I encourage everyone to read it, as it has implications for all of us – for men, of course, but also for women (so we can help our sons, significant others, fathers…).

In our society, there are unspoken rules about non-sexual touch, especially between men. In some cultures, physical contact between men is encouraged. But it seems in this country, with a few exceptions (sports teams, for example), anything beyond a handshake is unthinkable.

This discouragement of platonic touch between men is not just unfortunate – it’s emotionally and physically harmful. Women are allowed and even encouraged to hug and touch each other – and in doing so, we reap the hormonal benefits (increased oxytocin, decreased cortisol) that lead to better emotional and physical health.

Here’s a cool study on stress in women that talks about how when women are stressed, they tend to turn to their families and friends for support, whereas men tend to hole up alone. Apparently oxytocin has a calming effect and may play a role in this behavior. Estrogen appears to enhance the effects of oxytocin, but testosterone reduces its effects. Interesting.

Men, in contrast, have a gender-based “cowboy” burden: they are supposed to handle everything on their own, and show no sign of weakness. This leads to stoicism, suppressed stress, and isolation.

I don’t know what the answer is. Like many long-standing, harmful gender role expectations, reversal will require education for sure. We can teach our sons that they don’t have to go it alone – that they can and should share their burdens with others, including their male friends. There is no reason that men should be excluded from the healing benefits of physical touch.

Okay, off this particular soapbox. For now 🙂

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