Why does meditation feel so darned good? That flood of joy, love, and well-being washing over you during a nice long meditation sitting can be partly traced to the neurotransmitter oxytocin, a word derived from the Greek for "quick birth”.
Oxytocin was first discovered as a natural hormone released by the pituitary gland that causes increased contraction of the uterus during labor and stimulates the production of milk in the ducts of the breasts during lactation. Subsequently, oxytocin was also discovered as released by centers within the brain in men and women during hugging, touching (of one’s self and/or another), as well as during lovemaking. Studies have shown how oxytocin is involved in social bonding and the formation of generosity, and the reduction of fear within one’s self and between others.
If I were to introduce a fine, imperceptible mist of oxytocin around you right now, you would immediately begin to feel seen, heard, connected, and loved. You’d experience an increased felt-sense of belonging, well-being, and joy. Amazing, isn’t it? The effects of oxytocin go on: It also increases your felt-sense of trust. It reduces your feelings of anxiety, and increases your ability to feel generous, kind, and compassionate towards yourself and others.
This neurotransmitter is easy to produce. Simply place your hand on your heart and take several gentle long exhalations. You can also produce oxytocin by thinking loving thoughts about yourself or another, or by relaxing deeply, as we do during practices like meditation, yoga nidra, and body- and breathsensing.
Nature has developed oxytocin as a way to help foster our formation of social bonds, develop trust, and extend generosity within our social relationships. From this perspective, oxytocin is a chemical that’s vital to forming deep and lasting relationships within ourselves and with others.
I’ve incorporated these understandings into my own practice and teachings of meditation. You might try your own research right now with yourself. Place your hand on your heart and take several slow exhalations. As you exhale, allow your thoughts to drop away and your attention to rest in the sensations that arise in your heart and throughout your body. You may notice a warm tingling arising within your body as oxytocin is released through this simple exercise. You might close your eyes and continue deepening your experience of feeling seen, heard, connected, and loved.
Other ways of releasing oxytocin include rubbing your head, hands, or feet; rubbing the back of your neck; or getting or giving a hug. Enjoy this easy method of connecting and feeling connected whenever you’re by yourself, with another, or teaching your next class of students. Pass on the joy!
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2. Zak, P.J., Stanton, A.A., Ahmadi, A. 2007. Oxytocin increases generosity in humans. PLoS ONE. 2(11): e1128.
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4. Kirsch, P. et al. (2005) Oxytocin modulates neural circuitry f or social cognition and f ear in humans. Journal of Neuroscience. 25:11489-93.
5. Graham, Linda. 2014. Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-being. New World Library. Novato, CA.