Sometimes referred to as the “love hormone,” oxytocin is a powerful natural biochemical with physical and psychological effects. Acting as both a hormone (affecting the endocrine system) and a neurotransmitter (affecting the nervous system), oxytocin is well known for enhancing sexual behavior, reproduction, childbirth, breastfeeding, and maternal bonding. Perhaps less well known is the role that oxytocin plays in generating compassion, empathy, trust, relationship building, and social bonding.
The Whole-Body Effects of Oxytocin
Produced by large neuroendocrine cells in the hypothalamus, oxytocin is transported to and secreted by the pituitary gland, where it is released into the bloodstream and carried throughout the body and brain.1 When oxytocin enters the bloodstream, it affects the uterus and lactation, but when it is released into the brain, it affects emotional, cognitive, and social behavior, and enhances relaxation and psychological stability.
By helping the body adapt to highly emotional situations, oxytocin reduces stress and helps us respond appropriately to our social environment. Research shows that oxytocin benefits a variety of conditions, including anxiety, depression, and irritable bowel syndrome.
When people ask me to name the most powerful medicine I know, many are surprised when I respond, “Love.” In my two-and-a-half decades as a healer, I have observed that love is the greatest of all medicines and is the true essence of all healing.
My work brings me into close relationship with people facing life-threatening illness. It’s not uncommon that upon diagnosis of a serious illness, such as cancer, that people are often struck, as for the first time, with a deep understanding of the preciousness of life. It’s as though the thought of life being taken away is what sparks renewed life. Suddenly, our goals in life change—often radically—and we reevaluate who we are and where we are going. With great clarity, we become certain about who and what is important in our lives, and we know how we want to live out the rest of our days.
Many people naively view the spiritual journey as a means to euphoria, a type of drug-like high, and a magic carpet ride to bliss. However, this is not a realistic expectation. The spiritual journey involves the purification of the unconscious; therefore it is an exercise in letting go of the false self, the programmed self, and the self who is climbing the ladder to false happiness. The spiritual journey is a humbling process, because it requires letting go of the self that we know and identify with. When we step onto the spiritual path, we are called to change how we respond to life circumstances and how we choose to be in every aspect of our lives.
The distractions of life are powerful, and it’s all too easy to be consumed by the tasks, responsibilities, and desires that arise, causing us to stray from our spiritual center. When we embark on a spiritual journey, we need guidance and support to help us stay on course. Contemplative prayer is a simple, accessible means to cultivate the discipline that the spiritual journey requires.