Cortisol vs. Oxytocin – The Basics

I promised in my last blog post, Hypnosis for family tension to explain about the relationship between cortisol and oxytocin, as well as the role of our amygdala and hypothalamus in the way we relate and communicate, particularly in a family situation.

I promise you, I’m not turning into a neuroscientist, honest. And I don’t expect you to either. In fact I’m going to keep the explanations as simple as I can. But I really do believe this stuff is useful for folks to know about when they’ve got problem relationships within the family, or they want to be able to interact more constructively with family members, especially their kids.

The real question is, is it our place as hypnotists to educate them about it? I kinda think it might be, in certain circumstances. But I’d love to know what you all think. Let’s take a look at it… and it’s really all about stress.

In this first post, I’m going to explain my understanding of the basics of how cortisol and oxytocin work together with the amygdala and hypothalamus (any neuroscientists among you, feel free to correct me if I’ve got anything wrong here!) In the next post, we’ll explore what this looks like in a difficult relationship, and how hypnosis might be able to help.

It begins with our amygdala, an almond shaped part of the brain that is very primitive, and critical to our survival. Whenever we perceive a threat (big or small) the amygdala is like our automatic burglar alarm. As well as adrenalin coursing through our bodies, the amygdala triggers the release of the stress hormone, cortisol. This causes us to go into fight, flight or freeze mode, raising our heart and breathing rate, preparing for battle or to run away as fast as possible.

Our reasoning processes are locked down, along with our digestive processes, so that we can put all our energy towards getting ourselves out of immediate danger as quickly as possible. Our short term memory stops functioning, but our long term memory is heightened. And all of this is a really effective way of dealing with immediate danger. The problems come when the “perceived” threat isn’t really that much of a threat at all.

Under normal circumstances, when we realize that this “threat” is actually something we can deal with, and that we don’t need to get up tight or scared about it, that’s when our hypothalamus kicks in, and stimulates the pituitary gland to release the calming, soothing hormone called oxytocin, to counteract all that cortisol.

Oxytocin’s a great, “feel good” chemical. It calms everything down, gets our frontal lobes (the thinking, reasoning parts of our brains) working again, allowing us to be logical, and work our way out of whatever the problem is, calmly and clearly. It’s sometimes called the “love” hormone, because it increases feelings of trust and emotional bonding.

How we react to something is largely down to which hormone is stimulated most – if there’s too much cortisol for the amount of oxytocin to counteract, then we’re stuck in a stress response. If we’re chronically stressed, our ability to produce oxytocin is impaired. However, if we can release enough oxytocin, it can neutralize the cortisol, helping us to calm down. We can be reasonable, think clearly, and discuss things logically.

One of the problems is that our amygdala is “tripped” automatically. It completely bypasses our logical, thinking brain, and immediately reacts to what it thinks might be a threat of some kind. It can be like a faulty alarm, basically reacting to anything that it doesn’t immediately recognize as safe and also reacting to anything that reminds it of previously unpleasant experiences, whether or not the current situation merits it (remember I said the long term memory is heightened by cortisol?)

It’s not that we actually think about what’s happening, and decide how to react… That primitive organ, the amygdala, gets in there first, sets our alarms going and shuts down our reasoning. We all recognize that feeling of the “red mist” coming down and clear thinking goes straight out the window!

So you might imagine how this can lead to problems. You’re early in a relationship with a new girl. She says something, quite innocently, that immediately reminds you of a previous painful relationship, and before you’ve had time to even think, your amygdala has kicked in, telling you, “here we go again”… “OMG I thought she was going to be different” … “How could she think like that?!” and if you can’t catch yourself, breathe (a deep breath actually stimulates oxytocin to be released) and get your brain thinking clearly, disaster could lie ahead… time and time again.

Hopefully this has given you enough basic information to understand the fundamentals. Next time, we’ll look at how this can be exacerbated within family and other close relationships, and how hypnosis can help your clients to deal better with their own amygdala alarm being tripped, and to recognize when someone else’s has been too.

See you back here soon and as always feel free to leave a comment and let me know your thoughts.