How can we stay socially connected during the COVID-19 pandemic, when we’re so far apart?
Humans thrive in social networks. We’ve evolved to live in groups and bonding with others is important – something that isn’t very easy since social isolation became the norm.
So how can we stay socially connected when we’re so far apart? The secret lies in the love drug, otherwise known as oxytocin.
Oxytocin is a hormone that’s produced in the hypothalamus and secreted by the pituitary gland. It has important functions in childbirth and breastfeeding, but also has a positive impact on bonding and social behaviours.
Dr Theresa Larkin from the School of Medicine at the University of Wollongong says oxytocin has played a big role during the evolutionary development of humans.
“Humans have survived and thrived by bonding in social networks. We’re meant to be in groups and we’ve evolved to live in groups,” she said.
“Doing things together with others, such as making music and singing, was crucial for language development. Activities that stimulate the senses and involve synchronisation of movement of song among individuals within a group were particularly important. The hormone oxytocin helps us feel connected in such activities, and plays an important role in reinforcing socially beneficial behaviours”.
Being socially isolated is stressful for humans. Stress increases the secretion of cortisol, which is beneficial in cases of acute stress to mobilise energy stores, but unhealthy when secreted chronically. Oxytocin can counteract the physiological response to stress and is known to have anti-anxiety effects too.
The good news is that there are things you can do to stimulate the release of oxytocin even while you’re stuck at home. And you can even have some fun in the process of chasing that feel-good hormone.
Dr Larkin says you can stay connected during social isolation with sensory stimulation and synchronisation.
“Sensory stimulation could mean seeing a face, hearing a voice or patting a pet. Vocal communication and affection have been important for social bonding and connectedness for millions of years,” she said.
“Try and use video calls, talk rather than text, listen to the radio instead of reading the news, hug a pet or even a pillow.”
Dr Larkin says the synchronisation of singing, music, dancing and laughing also reinforces our social connectedness.
“You can sing, dance, laugh, listen to music or even watch a music video. All of these are great ways to stimulate the release of oxytocin,” she said.
“The power of social connectedness, music, dance and song to positively affect each of us is in our genes. Let’s have fun reconnecting with these things and each other during this time and beyond.”