Heart to heart: Love in the time of coronavirus
When it comes protecting our health, most of us probably think about eating more veggies and less cake, calming down with meditation, going to bed earlier, or getting off the sofa to do a bit of exercise.
And when I say ‘heart’, I don’t just mean that amazing beating organ that pumps blood around your body…I mean the part of you that feels love and connection.
Love exists in all our lives
You don’t have to be in a romantic relationship to know and feel love - it comes in many forms. There’s the love we have for our children, parents, siblings, other relatives and friends; the connection and community we feel for neighbours, colleagues, classmates, and our country.
There’s a new kind of self-love I’m coming to know which inspires me to make healthy life choices.
All love has different qualities, all connections are powerful and necessary - and all of it can be healing in troubled times.
Even before the coronavirus pandemic changed our lives, many mental health practitioners, churches, and charities spoke about the dangers of loneliness and how this contributes to illness. This is not only in elderly people but in people of all ages. As human beings, we all need love and human connection but why is it so good for us and how can we get more of it?
At every stage of the human experience of love, your brain and body are flooded with a range of different chemicals that influence your behaviour, mood and health.
These hormones include dopamine, serotonin, endorphins, and a whole host of others. But when it comes to the health benefits of love, one particular hormone is worth singling out - oxytocin.
Medicine for the heart
Oxytocin has many nicknames including ‘the cuddle hormone’, ‘the trust hormone,’ ‘the moral molecule’ and even ‘the great facilitator of life’. Essentially, it takes the centre stage when it comes to social bonding and attachment, encouraging our relationships throughout life from the moment we bond with our parents to the forming of romantic relationships as adults.
It’s around during life’s big moments – for example it’s abundantly present in childbirth and breastfeeding - but it’s also around during everyday moments when you see treasured friends or play with children.
As researchers delve ever deeper into the function and purpose of this ubiquitous love hormone, they’re discovering that oxytocin also has a significant role as a powerful immune regulator.
By tuning down the stress response, it helps to buffer its negative effects. It does this in part by suppressing the stress hormone cortisol. It also modulates activity in the amygdala, your brain’s stress centre. Under the influence of oxytocin, parts of your amygdala that tune into threats are turned down – so we feel better.
Reducing the negative impact of isolation by finding connection
Sadly, as many people remain apart from their loved ones, the therapeutic benefits of oxytocin may feel in short supply at the moment. Not least for grandparents who are kept away from their grandchildren and all the elderly or vulnerable people who are living on their own, without access to all the groups and activities that usually help them feel connected.
I look forward to the day when the government might allow families to make the judgement on whether it is riskier to see your family and have a hug…or continue to suffer the effects of isolation.
In the meantime, there are still some ways you can connect with people and feel the love of others, hopefully boosting your immune system at the same time:
Phone friends and family often for chats
Have a picnic in the sunshine with a friend if it’s safe to do so (2 metres apart, of course)
Set up or join ‘virtual’ social events - depending on how many people there are you can use Zoom, WhatsApp, Facetime or Skype
Call your colleagues instead of emailing them, or get together outdoors for a socially distanced meeting
Volunteer in the community, even if it’s just to walk a vulnerable neighbour’s dog or drop off some shopping at a distance
Always wanted to learn about something but never had the time? Sign up to an online course with a live chat element
Single? Online dating has opened up a whole world of opportunity to fall in love
Watch a film or read a book with an inspiring storyline and talk to others about it
Write someone you love a letter or postcard
Practice Love and Kindness Meditation
How have you been connecting with others throughout the coronavirus lockdown? Maybe you feel lonely and need to find connection more than ever. I’d love to hear your stories and tips – and I’m always here to listen and help. Email me on firstname.lastname@example.org or call 01256 679813