6 fascinating facts about the love hormone… and what that means for you

friends

I’ve written quite a lot about oxytocin, which also goes by the name of ‘love hormone’, ‘cuddle chemical’, ‘molecule of kindness’, or any other affectionate term that implies something about bonding and connecting.

If you ever wondered about those names, it’s because we produce oxytocin when we’re feeling love or connection (with a human, animal, tree, spiritual diety) and also when we hug.

So here’s a little summary of some of the healthy things that happen in our bodies when we produce oxytocin.

1) It makes people seem more attractive

One study gave people a dose of oxytocin and then showed them photographs of men and women, asking them to rate their attractiveness. A different group were given saline instead of oxytocin, as a control. The oxytocin group gave the men and women higher attractiveness ratings than did those who got the saline.

2) It makes us more generous

A study in the field of ‘neuroeconomics’ – where scientists study the brain while people make economic decisions – found that when people were given a squirt of oxytocin before they made an economic decision, where they had to decide on how they were going to share a sum of money, they were around 80% more generous than others who received a saline placebo.

3) It makes us more trusting

In an economics game known as the ‘Trust Game’, participants given a squirt of oxytocin were found to be significantly more trusting than those given saline. Of those in the saline group, 21% showed the maximal trust level, yet 45% of those who received oxytocin showed the maximal trust level.

4) It improves digestion

A little-known fact is that oxytocin and oxytocin receptors are found all throughout the GI tract. It plays an important role in the digestion of food (gastric motility and gastric emptyping). Research shows that in the absence of adequate levels of oxytocin, the whole digestive process slows down (known as gastric dysmotility).

In fact, some children with recurring tummy trouble or inflammatory bowel disease have been found to have low levels of oxytocin in their bloodstream. Oxytocin has as even been linked with IBS.

You may have heard of the old wisdom that you shouldn’t eat if you’ve just had a fight with a loved one. This is why. When we have a conflict, we reduce our levels of oxytocin, thereby making digestion a little more problematic.

Maybe if you want to improve your digestion, why not enjoy a meal with family or friends, or at least give someone a heartfelt hug before you start eating and again immediately afterwards.

5) It speeds up wound healing

Oxytocin also helps wound healing. It plays a key role in ‘angiogenesis’, which is the growth of blood vessels or re-growth of them after an injury.

Research shows that wounds take longer to heal when people are under stress or amid an emotional conflict, which is associated with lower oxytocin levels. In one study of couples, physical wounds of those who showed the most conflict behaviour healed 40% slower than wounds in those who weren’t in conflict. Other studies show that skin wounds heal even faster when we enjoy positive social interaction, which are times when we produce more oxytocin.

6) It’s good for the heart

It’s also very good for the heart. Oxytocin is a cardioprotective hormone, in that it protects the cardiovascular system. Oxytocin dilates the blood vessels, thereby lowering blood pressure, and also helps sweep free radicals and inflammation out of the arteries. FYI, free radicals and inflammation can cause cardiovascular disease.

How to produce oxytocin

We produce oxytocin every day. It flows when you show empathy or compassion, when you are kind or genuinely pleasant, when you show affection, when you hug. Love is not the only thing we make in the intimate act. We also make oxytocin.

I find it amazing that this simple hormone, that we generate through really any heart-centred display of gentleness or affection, produces all of the above effects.

Animals, and especially dogs, help us produce it too. Research shows that when we play with dogs, oxytocin levels shoot up in both the human and the dog.

This is probably why studies show that having a pet hugely benefits the heart. In one study, in patients who had spent time in a cardiac unit, after discharge, the chances of survival in those who had a pet was 400% higher. In fact, among many ways to improve heart health, Dr Mimi Guarneri, founder of the Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine and author of the book, ‘The Heart Speaks’, recommends having a dog.

Those of you who have been following some of my blogs will know that my beloved dog, Oscar, passed away at 2 years of age just 5 months ago. I enjoyed a very strong bond with Oscar. Before he arrived in my life, I never would have thought we could actually fall in love with animals, but Oscar’s presence in my life changed that.

I love the fact that dogs, and in fact all animals that we bond with, help us produce oxytocin and we, in turn, help them produce it. There’s something beautiful in this, in how we need each other, and in that the bond we create actually moulds our biology. It reminds me of why we need to see all humans and all animals as our family. It also adds a wee bit of fuel to my guiding principle in life: whatever you do, do it with kindness.

 

Footnotes:

The links above are references for the source scientific papers or articles or books where a study was cited. All references and full explanations, as well as references to many more studies, can be found in my book, ‘Why Kindness is Good for You’, which shares hundreds of pieces of research showing how kindness, empathy, compassion, and love are healthy for us, as well sharing some inspirational short stories of kindness.

It’s funny how things work out sometimes

connectedHave you ever wondered if things happen for a reason? A very unusual thing happened in my life a few years ago. I still chuckle to myself when I think about it today. :-)

Between 2001 and the end of 2002, I had been director of a charity (Spirit Aid Foundation) that a few friends and I had set up. I had many roles within that charity, as is often the case when budgets are limited and so volunteers have to learn to turn their hands to many different tasks.

One of my roles had been to build the charity’s website. At the end of 2002, I stepped down from my work with the charity so that I could start work on writing my first book (It’s the Thought that Counts). A few days after I left, I received a call from a volunteer (Pat) who had assumed responsibility for the website. She excitedly told me that a local IT company had agreed to create a new website for free but that she would need all the original files for the site asap. Could I get them to her by tomorrow? No problem, I told her.

I got out my laptop, opened up the files, popped a CD in the drive and pressed ‘Save’. Nothing happened. I hit ‘Save’ again and again and again. Still nothing. I tried a different CD and the result was the same. I actually went through a whole pack of CDs and none of them worked either.

I decided I needed some new CDs so I jumped in the car and drove to the nearest town where I could purchase some new CDs. I entered the shop and immediately came face to face with a large display of cheap floppy discs. I made my way around them, chuckling to myself that floppy discs are ‘so yesterday’. Being tech savvy, I told myself, I would be using CDs as they are the ‘in thing’. This was 2002, around the time when floppy discs were being phased out and replaced with CDs, which could store much more data.

Everywhere I looked for CDs in the shop, I kept finding floppy discs. Eventually I had to ask a store assistant where to find them. When I took them to the counter to pay, the assistant even then attempted to sell me floppy discs on special offer. I think they had an excess of stock they wanted rid of. Affirming how tech savvy I was, I even gave the assistant a little lecture on the differences in storage capacity between a floppy disc and a CD and why it’s much better to use CDs.

Proud of my new purchase of a pack of five shiny new CDs, I made my way back home. I popped a CD in the drive and pressed, ‘Save’. Nothing! I went through all five of my new CDs and none of them worked.

Not being one to allow myself to get too stressed, I had concluded at that time in my life that if I started to feel stressed, a good exercise was to do the exact opposite from what was stressing me. So naturally, knowing that I really needed to get the files onto a CD and to the post office by around 5pm, I decided to take the rest of the day off instead.

I phoned Elizabeth and she collected me in her little Fiat Cinquecento. We decided to go for a drive to somewhere nice where we could have lunch. Once in the car, Elizabeth asked me where we were going. I hadn’t a clue. I hadn’t thought that far ahead. So I opened up the AA Road Atlas (this was 2002, long before we had a sat nav) and found the large double page that covered central Scotland, where my small village of Banknock could be found. The page spanned quite a large area of cities, towns, villages about 250 by 250 kilometres, so I randomly selected as our destination a small town neither of us had ever visited, which was about an hours’ drive away.

When we got there, we drove into a large car park that was utterly deserted so we had our choice of parking spaces. Elizabeth selected one, parked and switched the engine off. As I stepped out of the car, a little box right in the centre of the adjacent parking space caught my attention. I moved closer to examine it and was quite taken by surprise when I learned that it was a box of ten floppy discs!

I decided not to touch them, just in case somebody had dropped them and was maybe on their way back for them. So we went for a walk and stopped into a pub to get some lunch, where we stayed for the next hour or so before returning to the car. We had swiftly concluded that perhaps one of the reasons why we’d never visited that town, nor had heard of family of friends visiting it, was because there really wasn’t much to see or do.

Back at the car park, still there, sitting ‘parked’ in its very own space, was the box of floppy discs. This is when I had the thought that maybe they were meant for me, so I took them and we drove back home again.

It’s a useful strategy for managing stress and boosting your creativity, to do something completely different from what is causing you stress. Back at my laptop I decided to once again attempt to save the web files onto CDs. I figured that I probably did something in error earlier in the day. Now that I felt refreshed I had a feeling I’d spot my error. And spot it I did. My error was that I didn’t actually have a CD Writer so I couldn’t possibly save onto a CD.

I had a CD Reader. Computers nowadays (the ones that still use CDs, that is) have the ability to read a CD (i.e. open what’s on it) and write a CD (i.e. burn files onto it). In 2002, you needed to buy a CD Writer, which was a little box you plugged into the side of your computer. I didn’t have one, despite my proclaimed tech savvyness. This was the point I felt a little pang of regret at having lectured the shop assistant about all my knowledge of technology. I had needed floppy discs all along.

But it’s funny how things work out. I just happened to have a new box of floppy discs that I had found in a car park a few hours earlier. I used them instead. And I actually needed all ten of them as there were so many files.

Once it was done, I packed them up and just made it to the post office as it was closing for the day, thereby ensuring that, as promised, Pat received all of the website files the next day.

I often wonder how weird stuff happens. Being scientifically minded, I have difficulty leaving things be. I have to find an explanation. Statistically, the chances of finding a box of ten floppy discs in a car park an hours’ drive away, where I could have selected anywhere in the same radius, when I actually needed floppy discs, is round about zero, I would think. If I thought I could do it again, I think I’d have more success betting on winning the lottery two weeks in a row.

I have written in some of my blogs (see: A Cluster of Synchronicities and Do You Have a 6th Sense?) and in one of my books (Is Your Life Mapped Out?) about how we’re all connected and, in fact, how everything is connected to everything, and that if we play with the idea that consciousness is not inside the head but is spread out over the universe, then that might provide part of an explanation for why we seem to sometimes attract who and what we focus our attention on.

In this case, my larger (subconscious) awareness knew all along that I needed a box of floppy discs and, as everything is connected, was also aware of exactly where I could find such a box. At first, it drew me to a shop where I was given numerous opportunities to purchase them, but where I instead elected to let my ego have its say as I explained the merits of CDs to the shop assistant who, for the sake of good customer service, feigned some interest.

My subconscious must have had a sense of humour that day as it then seeded the idea of choosing a place nearly 100 kilometres away where I would have no choice but to accept the floppy discs that I had needed all along.

That’s my explanation anyway. I do think it’s funny how things work out sometimes.

Can we see dead people?

can you see the face of a dog?
can you see the face of a dog?

How long would the human species last if we could all see and converse with deceased loved ones?

And let’s set aside for now whether it is even a valid question, whether such a thing is at all possible, or even whether life could possibly exist after ‘death’. Allow me to have a play with a few ideas for now and see where the question takes us.

It’s a question I asked myself when I was thinking about how some people have reportedly witnessed deceased loved ones appear.

When she was unwell a number of years ago, my Mum saw her mother and father appear beside her on two separate evenings. She was bedridden after having suffered a nervous breakdown. Her Mum, my Gran, had passed away two years earlier and showed up as solid as any human person. The following night, her Dad, my Papa, appeared more as a photographic negative. He had only been deceased for around a year. Papa told my mum not to worry, that everything was going to be ok. His words gave her hope and that hope carried her into wellness again.

My Mum never told anyone for years, lest they would think she had ‘lost her marbles’. It’s not the kind of thing anyone she knew had ever discussed. She only told me when I was an adult, when she knew that I had become interested in the subject. Over a cup of tea, I remember us wondering why Granny appeared solid yet Papa was more ethereal. We wondered if Granny was solid because she’d been gone longer, maybe she’d learned more and was consequently more skilled in making herself appear.

We will likely never have a scientific proof (or disproof) of the existence of life after death but I have gathered a few of my own thoughts over the years. One of them derives from asking a version of the question I posed at the start of this blog, ‘How long would the human species have lasted if our ancient ancestors could see and converse with deceased loved ones’? The short answer is ‘Not very long!’

The fear of death is one of the reasons why we live so long. It underlies the survival instinct that is much more than just an emotional fight to survive, but something that is wired so deep into the body that most people feel its effects almost every day as the stress response.

If early humans, say a few million years ago, routinely witnessed deceased loved ones appearing to them, it would take away much of their fear of death. Many would be more cavalier about their lives, knowing that death is not the end, that we’re still very much alive and even able to come back and hang with loved ones. Some might even crave death if they learned that life goes on and might even be easier on the ‘other side’, especially if their deceased loved ones seemed wiser or even smiled a lot.

Much of our fear of death comes from the fear that it is the end, that our existence is over. That’s it. Nada. Take away that fear and they’d be less cautious, more willing to put themselves in the way of danger, and therefore more likely to have a shorter life.

Thus, their genes would gradually be lost from the gene pool, including the genes that allowed them to perceive the deceased. For now, I’m going to call this perception, ‘Spirit Vision’, for the sake of not repeating ‘deceased loved ones’. Like all genes, genes that allowed our ancestors to have Spirit Vision would come in all shapes and sizes (known as polymorphs or variants). Some people would have clearer Spirit Vision than others, just as some people are naturally more altruistic than others (see my blog, ‘Fifty Shades of Pink’).

Those with the genes that gave them the clearest vision would be the ones less fearful of death and thus more likely, as a consequence, to have shorter lives than those with less clear vision. And so genes for clear Spirit Vision would gradually be lost from the gene pool, over evolutionary timescales of millions of years, yielding humans today who are more fearful of death and more likely to do whatever it takes to save their skin.

But, of course, the genes would not be entirely lost from the gene pool. Evolution doesn’t quite work that way. There will still be some of those ancient gene variants spread throughout the human race today. Thus, there would be people today whose genetics, and thus biology and brain chemistry that arises from their genetics, allows them to see deceased people at times.

This is not an endorsement of all psychics and mediums of course. I don’t know them all. Based on my reasoning, I suspect some really do see deceased people and perhaps others don’t. I don’t have any personal experience in this area, but I do have a couple of friends who do and I have no reason to doubt their testimony.

And when I say deceased people, I am understating their reality quite a bit, if they have a reality, that is. If their consciousness (being, essence, spirit) is no longer wedded to the physical form, what form would it exist in? Without reiterating what I’ve written in the occasional blog where I’ve touched upon this subject (see, ‘The Invisible Landscape‘ and ‘my visit from the other side’), it would be quite literally infinite. And thus the form we would ‘see’ would be based on what we’d expect to see, like the Spirit Vision version of the placebo effect, I suppose. And I presume they would also want to show us a form that we would most recognise.

Before I finish this blog, I want to offer that this is by no means a real scientific investigation into the reality of life after death, evolution, or genetics. I merely wanted to offer some of my personal thoughts on the subject.

Some might say that if a person did see a vision of a deceased loved one that it would merely be an illusion created by their brain chemistry. But following my reasoning, their genes could have created a brain chemistry that allows them to perceive what is really there?

I must confess that part of my motivation to write this piece is because I have given it a lot of thought since Oscar (my dog) passed away in November last year. I want to believe that he still exists in some form and that he is happy, that maybe even he’s looking out for me. If you look again at the image above, can you see the face of a dog with a stick in his mouth?

I was taking a video of the solar eclipse that happened over the UK on Friday 20th March and what seemed like the face of a dog (Oscar?) appeared for around 10 seconds of the 23 second clip. The photo above is a screenshot of the video.

I think in some ways it brings me comfort to believe that Oscar is still here and that I can speak with him in my prayers. If there are any leaps of faith or wild assumptions in my blog then that’s probably the reason. But, for the record, I do believe that we continue to exist after we pass away.

The magic of vulnerability

Oscar, my labrador dog
Oscar

I have found myself crying on stage a few times recently. One of these times was a couple of weeks ago in front of an audience of around 400 people at Hay House’s ‘I Can Do It! Ignite!’ conference in London.

I was speaking about my latest book, ‘I Heart Me: The Science of Self-Love’ and that having the courage to show our vulnerabilities is a big part of self-love.

I was sharing how I had learned about vulnerability from personal experience last year, from when Oscar, my beloved 2-year-old Labrador, was diagnosed with cancer through until he passed away in November. I had known about the academic research around vulnerability but life sometimes has a way of giving us a more personal experience of what we think we know.

I was sharing with the audience what had happened following Oscar’s diagnosis, about how my pain had deepened my relationships with the people around me. I shared a particular example involving my Dad, of how he opened up in a way I hadn’t known before as he witnessed my raw pain. But as I spoke about Oscar on stage that day, the raw pain of losing him rose to the surface of my mind and I began to cry.

My old self would have found crying in front of so many people highly embarrassing so I would have gulped down some deep breaths, maybe cleared my throat and pretended to look at the ceiling, all to hide my emotion. I would have tried to ‘Man up’.

But I’ve learned not to hide who I am any more. It’s a legacy of having had Oscar in my life, of having had the privilege of being his Daddy for those two short years. He taught me so very much, including the importance of being myself regardless of what anyone thinks.

It’s funny how, through my tears, while I tried to teach about the importance of vulnerability and the magic it produces, the audience were given a practical demonstration. What I most remember was the overwhelming empathy from the audience members. Some leaned forwards. Some also welled up with tears as they shared my pain as if it was theirs. Many spoke with me afterwards and offered their own experiences of loss, and in our conversations we found some common ground.

What I was trying to explain during my talk was that vulnerability not only opens us up but it opens others up too. It gives them permission to share what’s in their hearts. It gives them permission to be themselves, without any pretence. What I could see was that my own vulnerability had helped others to show their natural selves, that part of us that, no matter what is going on in our lives, we still reach out and help someone in pain, and we realise that doing so feels oh so right, that this is who we are, this is what it’s all about.

On that stage, I was privilege to a display of the kindness of empathy that I am deeply grateful for and that I will never forget.

In moments of vulnerability, people don’t judge us. They support us. The fear of being judged, or embarrassed, derives from feeling that we will be exposed, alone, rejected. To move past this fear, vulnerability takes courage.

Humans have a biological need to connect with each other. It’s a legacy of our evolution, where our ancient ancestors learned that to survive and thrive we needed to form strong bonds with each other. Over time, genes that make connecting with other people healthy and feel good found their way into the human genome. It’s nature’s way of ensuring the continuance of life. Nowadays, we simply need to connect with other people. It is a biological need. It lies deep in our genes and deep in the human psyche.

It’s why research shows that connecting with others is good for our hearts, our minds, our immune systems, and it even helps us live longer.

But in the human psyche, the need to be connected gives birth to a deep fear… the fear of not being connected, of being rejected, shunned, alone. This is why we’re afraid of showing our vulnerabilities. It’s not just that we’re afraid of being judged or embarrassed, deeper than that is the fear that we will be rejected, because if we’re rejected we won’t be connected.

Being rejected is like a threat to our very survival. It’s why it feels so scary and hurts so much.

This is the underlying reason why we hold back from showing our vulnerabilities, even of letting people see our true selves. How often do we just show our good sides and avoid any reference to our ‘wobbly’ bits?

The truth is, though, so long as we’re holding back from being our true, authentic selves, it is not actually possible to service our deep biological need for connection. The only way we can truly service the biological need for connection is to be ourselves, our whole selves, and that often means to find the courage to show our vulnerabilities, or at least let them surface and don’t bury them inside.

It’s a no-brainer, really. Think about it. Do you feel more connected to the people who know you best, who know about your successes and failures, your delights and your tantrums, your ups and your downs, who know you when you’re happy and also when you’re sad, who have witnessed some of your vulnerable moments, or to the people whom you hide most of this from and only show your ‘best side’ to?

The thing is, vulnerability is our best side. It’s our human side. Everyone has fears, worries, concerns, everybody feel insecure at times, everybody worries whether they will be liked or accepted.

Vulnerability takes courage, but the courage returns connection. And, of course, there is always the risk of rejection. But it’s more important that we express ourselves than hide ourselves.

The courage to be vulnerable is a massive statement of self-love. It says, “This is who I am, World, just as I am. Right now, in this moment, I don’t need you or anyone else to like me or even to approve of me. This is me, as I am, and I know that I am enough.”

Vulnerability doesn’t call for you to be an open book, of course. It only asks that you not be afraid to be yourself, just as you are, and that you understand that being yourself is most definitely, absolutely enough.

A laugh before bedtime

Oor Wullie and The Broons
Oor Wullie and The Broons

I love to read before I go to sleep. It is something I very much look forward to each night. It usually makes me feel calm.

But a big part of this is down to what I read. I love to read ‘Oor Wullie’ (that’s ‘Our William’, if you’re not Scottish) and ‘The Broons’ (or The Browns, if you’re not Scottish). They’re Scottish comic strips. They appear every Sunday in The Sunday Post, one of the best-known Scottish Sunday newspapers.

I’ve been getting an Oor Wullie or The Broons Annual every year at Christmas, from my Mum and Dad, for as long as I can remember. Christmas Day just wouldn’t be the same for me without one. I actually look forward to getting one. I have loads of them stretching back, well, a few decades now, and I always have two or three lying beside my bed at any one time.

Very often I’m smiling, chucking, or laughing out loud right before I go to sleep.

I decided to write about this in a blog because I find that so many of us go to sleep stressed, either running over the day in our minds or worrying about tomorrow, or maybe we’re watching the news on TV, reading the news on our smart phones or tablets, or even answering work emails. The last thing we need to be doing before going to sleep is watching the news or answering work emails, especially when the news is rarely proclaiming to us all the good that’s happening in the world, and work emails make us feel that we’re, well, still at work.

Before I say any more on the subject, of course Oor Wullie and The Broons are not the only things I ever read at night. I sometimes read novels (I’ve currently reading Taming Amy, by Seth Gardner, and before that I re-read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows… I have quite a diverse taste. :-)) but, with the odd exception, I mostly avoid anything that is too mentally taxing or stimulating late at night unless it’s something that inspires me or is clearly helpful in my life.

And even if I do read something mentally stimulating (I recently devoured ‘Human Universe’ by Brian Cox), when I feel myself getting tired I lay that book down and pick up a trusty old Oor Wullie or The Broons for the last 10 or 15 minutes, just to quieten my mind and help ensure I get a peaceful nights’ sleep.

It’s good to go to sleep in a good mood and I find that reading something light and funny always helps, no matter what’s been happening recently. Reading about Wullie or Maw and Paw Broon is like a comfort blanket for me.

I’d suggest you find a light-hearted reading comfort blanket at bedtime, especially if you find yourself stressed or depressed a lot of the time, or if you find difficulty unwinding at the end of a day… just something that can help gently nudge your attention towards lightness and ease.

If your material makes you laugh then even better. Several studies show that laughter boosts happy chemicals in the brain, it strengthens the immune system, it’s good for the heart, and most definitely good for mental health. It even helps us improve our relationships.

And if you do happen to pick up a copy of Oor Wullie or The Broons, I hope you find it just as entertaining as I do. :-)

Use your body to change how you feel

Power Pose
Leading an audience in a Power Pose at Anita Moorjani’s Being Myself workshop in London, Feb 28 2015.

If you’ve read ‘I Heart Me’ recently you’ll be very familiar with Power Posing. It’s a simple way of using your posture to change how you feel.

Research at Harvard University led by Amy Cuddy found that just a couple of minutes standing in a Power Pose, like Wonder Woman, (OK, if you’re a male let’s go for Superman) could dramatically alter your body chemistry.

Basically, your muscles are connected to your brain. Notice that when you feel happy you smile. You don’t feel happy and then remember that you’re supposed to smile. The muscles on your face do that automatically because they are connected to your brains’ emotional areas.

Similarly, when you feel stressed you don’t suddenly remember you’re supposed to frown or tense your shoulders. These things happen automatically because your muscles are connected to emotional regions in your brain.

What most people don’t realise is that it goes the other way as well. Just as a feeling causes responses in your body, so holding your body in a certain way affects how you feel. It’s one of the reasons why laughter yoga is so popular. It works! And it does so because laughter actually produces positive emotion at the neurological level.

It’s like ‘fake it until you make it’. But please note, when I say fake it I’m meaning to do it on purpose, wholeheartedly; not as a pretense that everything is hunky dory in your life.

There’s a world of difference between smiling or laughing to pretend that everything is OK when it’s not, and smiling and laughing on purpose with an awareness that doing so can actually change your emotional state.

At Harvard, Amy Cuddy found that standing in a Power Pose for just a couple of minutes increased hormones associated with confidence by 20% and lowered cortisol (a stress hormone) by 25%.

I have found that power posing is a really great way of actually ‘wiring-in’ self-love. It was one of my key practices during my self-love project.

When we find ourselves lacking in self-love, whether it’s in a testing situation, around certain people, in particular environments, or if we feel self-conscious in any way, we wear the feeling on our body. But if we practice holding and moving our bodies in a way that says, ‘I am enough’, ‘I matter’, ‘I am important’, ‘I’m worth it’, or some other version of these, the practice quite quickly affects how you feel and therefore how you function in these environments and around these people.

During my work on self-love, I found it very useful to practice it for only a couple of minutes in the morning just after I got up and before I took shower or had breakfast.

The brain is ‘neuroplastic’, which means it’s always changing. It changes in response to what you learn, what you do, what you experience, but also on account of what you think and, importantly, how you hold and move your body. Learning ‘I am enough’ body language is a sure-fire way of altering the emotional architecture of the brain, specifically in the areas that control how we feel about ourselves.

Think of the practice like going to the Self-Love Gym (that’s what I call it in the book). Just as going to the gym to exercise makes your muscles grow, so doing a regular self-love practice like power posing makes the self-love areas of your brain grow.

Have a go. Try it on for size and see if the simple exercise fits.

How meditation affects the cells of breast cancer survivors

image from istockphoto
image from istockphoto

I have written about the benefits of meditation on several occasions, from how it slows ageing, can make us happier, helps us develop and maintain and calm state, and even how it impacts our genes.

So I just couldn’t wait to tell you about an amazing new study that can give hope to people who have or have had breast cancer.

Scientists at the University of Calgary, led by Dr Linda E. Carlson, clinical psychologist and professor of psychosocial oncology, measured telomeres (I’ll tell you a bit more about them in a mo) in breast cancer survivors who did a Mindfulness-Based Cancer Recovery (MBCR) program or who attended Supportive-Expressive Group Therapy (SET).

OK, telomeres first. They’re the little end-caps on DNA that help stop it unravelling. They’re a bit like the little plastic caps on shoelaces that help stop them unravelling. Gradually, as we age, through the effects of stress, lifestyle and ageing, telomeres get shorter. Once they get too short, the cells expires, just as your shoe laces are pretty much done when the plastic cap is gone. Telomere research seems to suggest that longer telomeres help protect us from disease and that telomere length is correlated with the likelihood of surviving diseases, including breast cancer and cellular ageing. In other words, if our telomeres stay healthy, our cells stay healthy, we stay healthy, and we live longer.

The scientists compared the telomeres of patients doing MBCR or SET against a control group of patients.

How the study was done

Breast cancer patients (stages I – III) who had completed treatment at least 3 months earlier were randomised into 3 groups.

One group attended MBCR sessions once a week for 8 weeks, which involved meditation and gentle yoga. The sessions were 90 minutes long and the women were also given CDs for doing the meditation and yoga at home.

One group attended 3 months’ worth of weekly 90-minute SET sessions. Each session encouraged openness and emotional expression and helped cultivate a group emotional support system. Some describe these sessions as ‘emotional detox’.

A third group – the control group – simply attended a 6-hour stress management seminar, which represented standard treatment.

The results

The scientists found that while telomeres had shortened in the control group, telomeres didn’t shorten at all over the 3-month period in the groups who did MBCR or SET. In other words, meditation, yoga, and emotional expression seemed to have a protective effect on cells.

Think about what this means! Basically, meditation, yoga, and emotional support are having a positive effect at the cellular level on breast cancer survivors.

I wanted to share this because there are so many people in the world these days affected by cancer, whether themselves, or it’s someone in their family, one of their friends or colleagues. As you may know, I lost my beloved dog, Oscar, to cancer just over 3 months ago. I think the more ways we know how to deal with cancer the better.

I love studies like this because they are empowering. The give hope where sometimes hope is very low. They show us that this is something that we can do. It’s something that we can take control of.

If you want a little more info or guidance on how to do MBCR or SET, here’s a link to the scientific paper. Here’s also some links to a book written by Linda Carlson called ‘Mindfulness-Based Cancer Recovery: A Step-by-Step MBSR Approach to Help You Cope With Treatment and Help You Reclaim Your Life’ (Amazon UK  Amazon.com) that also gives info on how to use MBCR.

The Acceptance Paradox

caterpillar to butterflyWhatever you accept begins to change. That’s the acceptance paradox in a nutshell.

I first started thinking about it after the first deadline for my self-love book. I’d worked on the book (and on myself) for about 8 months but I’d tried to write it in the same way I’d written my seven previous books. I’d know a little or a lot about a subject and then find scientific evidence to back it up.

I’d written on the mind-body connection. I knew, initially from my time as a scientist in the pharmaceutical industry, about the placebo effect and I also knew that meditation had physiological and neurological effects. I knew that people sometimes healed because of a belief or through a shift in their emotional state. So I found scientific evidence to back this up so I could reach lots of people and help them recognize their own power.

I’d also written on kindness and compassion. Again, I already knew that kindness could make us happier and that compassion was good for the heart, so I simply uncovered the research and shared it all in a book.

But writing ‘I Heart Me’ was different. Once I discovered what self-love actually was and the different ways it affects our lives, I realized that I didn’t have very much self-love at all. My self-love ‘deficit’ was having some real negative effects in my life. Writing a self-love book requires self-love and I was writing to try to obtain self-love. Working in this back-to-front way was really reinforcing that I didn’t have self-love… otherwise, why would I by trying so hard to obtain it?

Fortunately, my publisher (Hay House) recognized that I needed to do more work on myself and kindly gave me as much time as I wanted. That took the pressure off and I soon began to accept where I was in my life.

That’s when the real growth began. Acceptance was the key. Accept that it’s OK to not be healed, to not be a master of self-love, to not be as progressed as some other authors I knew, OK to have a lot of personal and emotional challenges, because, you know what?… that’s normal and it’s called being human.

Once I accepted myself, I began to change. The more I accepted myself, the faster I changed. It’s a version of whatever you look at disappears.

The theme has often emerged at my workshops and especially with regard to losing weight. Some people who want to lose weight and who feel they don’t have much self-love (not everyone, of course…we’re all different in our own ways) don’t want to love themselves because they fear that self-love will make them love themselves so much that they won’t want to change. Since losing weight has been such an important thing for them, the result is a resistance to doing any self-love work.

But this is where the Acceptance Paradox works. When you do accept who you are, and how you are, even make a start and try to find something good or beautiful in yourself, spontaneous change begins. This influx of self-love gives birth to inspired change. We start to make healthier choices.

Rather than self-love resulting in not losing weight through becoming so comfortable with yourself, self-love actually often leads to losing weight. But the very important distinction is that the weight loss isn’t in an attempt to be someone or something you’d love more, but originates from someone of something you’re starting to love, just as you are.

That’s how The Acceptance Paradox works.

Oh, and please know that I’m making quite a generalization here, touching on an issue that I know affects a lot of people. But I know others who would class themselves as overweight, but who are inspiring examples of self-love. I just wanted to make that distinction because overweight does not equate to low self-love. It’s simply something that is relevant to some people.

 

If you haven’t read ‘I Heart Me’ and would like a taster, you can read some of it here for free. Hopefully you’ll find something you’re looking for.

How your mind can affect your strength

meditationI’ve written quite a bit about the mind-body connection in my books and in some of my blogs. Among other things, I’ve written about strength improvements through visualisation, rehabilitation following a stroke, and even how to reduce appetite by tricking the mind into thinking you’ve eaten, so I’m always on the lookout for new pieces of research.

Well, in October 2014, researchers at the Ohio Musculoskeletal and Neurological Institute (OMNI) published a great piece of research in the Journal of Physiology that showed how visualisation can slow down the loss of muscle, say after a person has had an accident and has limited use. The research is a demonstration of the mind powerfully impacting the body.

In the experiment, 29 people wore a cast from their elbow to their fingers for 4 weeks. Around half of them (14 people) did a visualisation exercise 5 days a week during this time and the other half (15 people) didn’t.

The training sessions were as follows: They had to mentally contract their wrist, given the instruction, “Begin imagining that you are pushing in as hard as you can with your left wrist, push, push, push … and stop.” This would take 5 seconds and they would then get 5 seconds rest. They did it 4 times in a row and that would constitute 1 round. Each daily session was 13 rounds.

Of course, both groups lost strength in that time, which is to be expected when you’re not doing any exercise at all, but what was amazing was that the group who visualised lost much less strength than the group who didn’t.

The group who didn’t visualise lost 45% strength over the 4 weeks but the group who visualised only lost 24%. That’s half as much! It’s a significant difference.

I used to be an athletics coach and loved it. A few years after I stopped doing it formally, a young sprinter came to me devastated that he was to have a shoulder operation that would put him out of training for 3 months. So we devised a visualisation plan where he would go to the gym in his mind and run on the track in his mind.

He did about 45 minutes of this a day, 5 times a week, going to the gym in his mind and running on the track in his mind. He was totally committed to his mental workouts. I remember laughing when he told me he had just surpassed his bench press PB (personal best) in his mind. He said he could feel the great weight and the strain but had imagined pushing the bar up.

The mental effort worked wonders for him. Not only did he defy the odds and was back in training in half the time (6 weeks instead of 3 months), but he had barely lost any strength or leg speed at all. And his improvement from that point was dramatic. Within a few months he had improved so much that he was chosen for the first time ever to represent his country in an international competition.

The mind is far more powerful that most people assume. I love that there is now a great many pieces of credible scientific research in the area.

The key is that imagining something repetitively has a huge impact on the brain. It creates ‘neuroplastic change’, which is where the brain actually moulds around what you’re imagining, effectively not making any distinction between whether you’re doing the thing or imagining doing the thing.

This is great, because if you’re not yet able to do something perfectly, you can certainly imagine yourself doing it perfectly. And to your brain, that’s really the same thing. Your brain then affects how your muscles perform, whether that’s in running, jumping, swinging a golf club or a tennis racket, or even whether it’s speeding up the healing process following injury or disease, which of course I’ve written a great deal about in my book, ‘How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body’, so I don’t want to regurgitate it here.

So never doubt your ability to do something. If you can imagine it, you can do it!

A hug a day … boosts your immune system

hug illustrationI’ve written about hugs in some past blogs and books, in particular about how they produce the hormone oxytocin, which is good for the heart. I coined the term, ‘A hug a day keeps the cardiologist away’. I love hugs so I couldn’t wait to share some exciting new research about how they can protect you from the common cold.

The research was led by Sheldon Cohen of Carnegie Mellon University. It was a simple study. His team asked 404 people how many hugs they received over a two-week period before exposing them to the virus that causes the common cold and monitoring them in quarantine.

It turned out that those who had the most hugs had lowest severity of cold symptoms.

There was a little more to the study. As well as hugs they monitored how much social support each person received. Those who felt most supported in their lives and relationships were most protected from the cold. Hugs accounted for a third of the overall effect.

It’s well known in science that when we’re involved in ongoing personal conflicts with people we’re less able to fight off colds and other infections. Have you noticed that? It’s presumed that the stress involved in the conflict can suppress the immune system. So the hug study was looking at the opposite effect – emotional, social support; i.e. support and closeness instead of conflict and distance. While conflicts suppress the immune system, the study implied that hugs boost it. Generally speaking, you can think of it as emotional support and closeness is good for us while consistent conflict and emotional distance isn’t so much.

I love this kind of research. It motivates me to keep spreading the word that we should be nice to one another, help each other, and of course hug each other. Hugs are easy to do. You just, well, give someone a hug. That’s it. Who would have imagined it can be so good for health.

I’ve previously written about the effects of hugs on the heart (in ‘Why Kindness is Good for You‘). Research has shown that hugs produce the hormone oxytocin, which is cardioprotective. That means it protects the heart. Oxytocin, and therefore hugs, reduces blood pressure and helps sweep arteries clear of free radicals and inflammation.

So this new research compliments the overall health-giving effect of hugs. Not only are they good for the heart, they are also good for the immune system.

So, I guess, we might as well make sure we give out a few hugs today, and of course welcome those offered to us too.