The Healing Capacity of Love
Yes, we need love. Now more than ever. Not just to feel better, but to get well.
How does that translate to a virus that made us agree to socially isolate ourselves?
Let me first get into the healing capacity of love itself.
We might think that ‘love heals’ is just a metaphor that just looks nice on a pink & fluffy bumper sticker (or graffiti walls for that matter).
However, it is biologically & scientifically true.
As a doula, I’ve witnessed the biological healing power of love many times.
Let me give some examples:
A baby who was born after a long and trying labor was taken away from the mother after birth to be given an oxygen mask in the other corner of the room. It didn’t seem to help. The nurses looked extremely worried. One said “I’m afraid we have to take him to NICU.” The other said: “Not before mom gets to say goodbye.” The mother got her baby back, placed him on her chest, she cuddled him, stroked his little arms and spoke to him so lovingly (“Hey little one, look how beautiful you are. We’ll see each other soon, I promise.”). The baby pinked up immediately and the nurses decided that in this condition the baby could stay with the mother. The nurse who had pleaded for the mom to be able to say goodbye to her baby commented “Of course, I’ve seen this many times: baby’s best place in the world is with mom. It’s the love.”
Another mother’s bed was rolled back into the room, back from the operating room. Her baby was born by cesarean section, which she had so longed to avoid. She looked pale and far away. Her baby was lying at her feet, covered in a blanket. I hesitated, as it almost seemed she would want to be left alone. I approached her softly. Asked how she was doing and I stroked her hair, as I’d been doing all through labor. “Not so well.” “Feeling nauseous?” I asked, as many moms experience this after surgery. She nodded. “And I lost a lot of blood. The bags just came and came.” The color seemed to return to her face. She lifted her head to look at her baby boy. The nurse helped her and handed her her baby. Together we looked at him. “What a pretty baby. Such beautiful hair. Look at those tiny fingers” She started stroking the hair and touching the fingers. She smiled. Then she asked me to help her take off her top, so she could start nursing him. And so she did. The baby latched immediately. She looked proud.
This is magic and it isn’t. It’s biologically logical: loving touch stimulates the hypothalamus to produce oxytocin, which is both a hormone as well as a neurotransmitter. It links connection with others to positive feelings of well-being. Oxytocin relaxes the muscles, lowers blood pressure and reduces the production of stress hormones, like cortisol. As soon as oxytocin starts to flow, adrenalin stops flowing. These are mutually exclusive systems. So basically, oxytocin stops stress. Oxytocin helps the immune system, reduces inflammation and promotes wound healing. If you are ill but feel safe and loved, you will heal faster.
As doula’s we learn that oxytocin starts flowing after hugging someone for 20 seconds.
It starts flowing through massage and kind words. Through connection, compassion, understanding. That’s what doula’s do: we provide the love. For both the mother and father-to-be.
Love heals. And the absence of love even costs lives.
Often quoted observations in a Romanian orphanage show us that if babies and young children are just given their food and having their diapers changed, they die three times as often as the ones who also receive loving touch and attention.
Babies who need NICU-care have a larger change of survival if they receive regular ‘kangaroo care’: being placed skin to skin on their parents chests.
Research shows that if patients are cared for in a loving way and if they feel safe and secure, their wounds and inflammations will heal faster than those who don’t.
So with a highly contagious virus like Corona, that leaves me wondering: how unfair that one of the most basic features to heal each other, like loving touch, is the one thing that’s helping this virus spread!
How extremely sad that someone who develops severe symptoms, will be excluded from it more and more. I totally get it that care providers (who are obviously heroes) have to protect themselves and others while treating Corona-patients by wearing masks and gloves. But this is still a tragedy for the patients themselves. That they can’t benefit from the healing power of human touch. Imagine having a severe case of the virus that everyone in the world is scared to death about right now. And then imagine being put alone in a room, while you find it difficult to breathe. The people who come into your room every now and then to perform medical procedures on your body wear masks and gloves.
How safe and loved will that make you feel?
And what about our collective immune system? How can we boost that when we can’t touch, if we're unable to hug and kiss most of our loved ones?
Fortunately, all’s not lost with the loss of touch.
There are more ways to invite oxytocin to start flowing.
* There’s self-touch: yes, it may feel awkward at first, but hugging yourself, caressing your skin and self massage will get the oxytocin flowing as well. And now we're talking about it: an orgasm will give the second largest boost of oxytocin possible (after giving birth)!
* There’s eyecontact. Okay, to be honest, it takes loooong eye contact for oxytocin to start flowing, but it’s not going to hurt either. So please, yes, practice your 2 meters of social distancing AND give the one you’re avoiding a loving smile! We’ll all feel a little safer.
* There’s kind words. So please, don’t visit your elderly mother, but call her more often and say nice things to her. Talk kindly to yourself as well.
* There's humor and laughter and a coziness Dutch people refer to as 'gezelligheid'.
Please take a nice warm blanket, a pot of hot tea and your favorite feel-good film to watch.
* There’s social media which can be used to spread messages of love or fear.
Please, mind people’s oxytocin vs. adrenalin levels when you’re sharing online.
With everything you express, say, write or body sign, please ask yourself: am I adding to people’s fear, anxiety and stress, or am I spreading a message of love, connection and healing?
And if someone you love ends up in isolation or ER, please remain in loving digital or phone contact with them. They need it more than ever.
Love heals. And we need loads of that right now.
Please stock up on love.
What’s your favorite strategy to keep love & oxytocin flowing in this situation?