Reducing Anxiety with an Oxytocin Hug
By Petra Coveney, December, 2022
When I created Menopause Yoga in 2013, it was after many years of academic and medical research and feedback from women in my menopause workshops. Yoga made me feel better in perimenopause, but not all yoga felt good, some made me feel worse or caused injury, and I specifically wanted to find practical ways for women to reduce symptoms such as anxiety, social withdrawl, low self esteem.
Women told me they felt ‘lost and alone,’ ‘lacking confidence to go out to see friends,’ and they struggled with anxiety, heart palpitations, panic attacks, paranoia and depression.
We know that oestrogen helps the brain to create oxytocin, serotonin and dopamine (see previous blog post), so the fluctuations in oestrogen in perimenopause and the eventual decline in post menopause really can cause anxiety, irritability, social withdrawal and depression etc., So stimulating oxytocin may help to reduce anxiety.
A study into the role of oxytocin in female mammals (McCarthy and Goldman, 1994) suggests that oxytocin has anxiolytic properties in oestrogen-treated females and supports the theory that oxytocin helps facilitate social encounters by reducing social anxiety. (1995 & 8713972.)
There are various ways to stimulate oxytocin (see next Blogpost) and reduce anxiety naturally.
Yoga & Anxiety
I knew from widespread research that yoga could help reduce generalised anxiety in men and women, but I wanted to offer something that would specifically help menopausal women to feel connected, and remind them they were not alone. I knew this was true from my own personal experience of going through perimenopause earlier than my sister and my friends.
So I broke the taboo by calling my methods, ‘Menopause Yoga’ and created a class and workshop structure that included women’s circle discussions and the Oxytocin Hug to stimulate a sense of connection with other women. I wanted them to realise that they were not alone and they could have the support from other women.
Academic research shows that skin-to-skin touch, self stroking and hugging could stimulate this magical hormone. And women in my workshops said they loved it.
However, my greatest surprise was during the 2020-22 pandemic when Menopause Yoga classes went online. Women still felt the benefits of the Oxytocin Hug even though they weren’t in the same room together.
How did we do this?
Well, to start I need to give full credit to the women who used their power of imagination and a proactive desire to feel this sense of connection. It’s not something you can force people to do and resistance will block the benefits.
Secondly, we need to create a safe and supportive space so that women feel able to relax and free their imagination. Confidentiality is always agreed at the start of our conversations.
Thirdly, by rubbing the palms of our hands together it both warms up our skins and stimulates the nerve endings, so that when we close our eyes and reach our arms out wide, we can imagine that our hands are gently resting on the shoulders of the women ‘seated next to us.’ There is a tingling sensation in our hands as if we have touched another person’s shoulder and can feel their energy and warmth.
Then we bring the hug back to ourselves, and slowly stroke the sides of our arms up and down. This is what releases the oxytocin.
How does the Oxytocin Hug work?
I am an evidenced-based teacher so I can’t claim to have taken hormone readings before or after the Oxytocin Hug practice. But anecdotally women say they feel a warm sensation flowing down their arms as they stroke the side of their arms, and it makes them smile and feel good. It isn’t instant for everybody. Some people are more sensitive to touch than others. For some, it can take a few attempts before they feel this flow of happy hormones.
However, there is research to back my theory and methods.
A research paper The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 2014, looked at ‘hugging found that “Hugging and other forms of nonsexual touching cause your brain to release oxytocin, known as the "bonding hormone. This stimulates the release of other feel-good hormones, such as dopamine and serotonin, while reducing stress hormones, such as cortisol and norepinephrine. (“Hugging and other forms of nonsexual touching cause your brain to release oxytocin)
The need for human touch and connection goes deeper than this.
In 2021, during the world pandemic, Alexandra Benisek wrote a paper on Touch Starvation - a condition that happens when you don’t get enough physical touch. “You crave contact but can’t interact with others for some reason. It’s also known as touch deprivation or skin hunger,” says Benisek. (Written by Alexandra Benisek Medically Reviewed by Neha Pathak)
Why Touch Is Important
“Human touch is one of the ways. That humans interact with each others. We bond through physical touch. Your skin is the largest organ in your body and sends good and bad touch sensations to your brain. When you engage in pleasant touch, like a hug, your brain releases a hormone called oxytocin. This makes you feel good and firms up emotional and social bonds while lowering anxiety and fear. This reaction begins at birth. When babies are born, doctors suggest that mothers hold and comfort them often to promote healthy development. This human-to-human interaction keeps up throughout our lives. Even in adulthood, human touch helps regulate sleep and digestion, build your immune system, and fight infections.”
When we are deprived of touch, we may become stressed, anxious, or depressed, explains Benisek. As a response to stress, your body makes a hormone called cortisol. This can cause your heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension, and breathing rate to go up, with bad effects for your immune and digestive systems. These things can lead to worse quality of sleep and a higher risk of infections. Other medical conditions, including diabetes, asthma, and high blood pressure, may get worse. (Written by Alexandra Benisek Medically Reviewed by Neha Pathak)
But if you don't have anyone to give you a physical hug, how can we stimulate this hormone on our own?
A study in 2021,’Self-soothing touch and being hugged reduce cortisol responses to stress: A randomized controlled trial on stress, physical touch, and social identity,’ found that while touch is a stress coping mechanism,
“…when touch from others is unavailable, feels uncomfortable, or is not considered to be safe (as in the COVID-19 pandemic), self-touch gestures…may provide an alternative way to experience less strain…These results are in line with previous work indicating that physical touch has protective effects on physiological stress responses but not necessarily on self-reported stress and suggest that self-soothing touch and receiving hugs are simple and yet potentially powerful means for buffering individuals' resilience against stress.” (Dreisoerner A).
Practising at home:
So there you have it, the evolution of the Oxytocin Hug and why it is an integral part of my Menopause Yoga methods. If you are feeling anxious or socially withdrawn over the Winter holidays, maybe you feel a loss of confidence, overwhelmed or low in your mood. Try practising the Oxytocin hug to self soothe your nervous system - or hug a friend or loved one.
If you'd like to practice this Oxytocin Hug with me and other women live online, I will be running weekly Menopause Yoga Classes on Tuesdays in January 10th, 17th, 24th, 31st from 8am-9.15am. These classes have been reduced to only £8.00 in January to help create healthy habits for your year ahead.
You can book direct on my Menopause Yoga Event Booking page. Click Here.