Oxytocin and Hugs

Today on a webinar about Unconscious Bias, I was reminded of the power of oxytocin for stimulating good, warm fuzzy feelings.[1]  Oxytocin is a hormone produced in the brain. When a breastfeeding mother embraces her infant or when the infant cues its mother into wanting to feed,  this powerful hormone is released.  Oxytocin stimulates the letdown of milk, while simultaneously opening up the heart of both the mother and infant for feelings of connection and closeness. Oxytocin is released when we give each other hugs, in the first months of a love relationship, and when we have orgasms.   I wonder if oxytocin can be released when I examine some of my patients.  

My next thought was we need to bring the hug back to public education.  Imagine, the child feels welcomed and uplifted as he or she walks into the classroom.  And, more importantly, the teacher is filled with a rush of incredible warmth as they scan the room of their daily crew, oxytocin stimulated by 28 different hugs!

I shared this thought with a professor I know, and she said, ” Ah, well, good luck with that!”  I know the public is probably not ready to give up the association between hugging and inappropriate touch at school.  But , wouldn’t it be inspirational?  A hug a day would keep the potential for learning paramount.   Many teachers have found other ways to connect with their students that involve touch but not hugging.  I imagine connection is happening and oxytocin flowing through daily traditions like – the special handshake, the life-affirming daily hip hop  chants,  or the affirmations to each student before beginning a lesson.  Now let’s take this one step further.  What would a medical school classroom look like if oxytocin levels were high or off the charts?  What adult behaviors of connection simulate the handshake, the chant, or the affirmation?  Maybe, we should just start with the hug!

My thoughts turned to something I have personally pondered a lot.  When colleagues or patients would ask, “Dr. Walton, you always seem so upbeat, what’s your secret?”   I would think, ” Well, after you see the first patient of the day, it is just uphill from there!”  Between getting my children to school and dealing with the commute or starting the day with a contentious morning staff meeting,  even after arriving to work frustrated or flustered,   by the time I was finished seeing the first patient of the morning, I was leaving that room uplifted and smiling.  In that exam room, hugs of greeting were the norm, hugs of compassion when life sucked were accepted.  A touch on a mother’s shoulder to say I hear you and I understand. Most encounters included an exam.  Wouldn’t oxytocin levels be running high in that room?

What do hugs and oxytocin have to do with discussions about unconscious bias?  Well, when you feel connected, your oxytocin levels increase, you are happy and stimulate higher brain function.  With higher brain function, you are more self-aware and feel expanded.  Open to new ideas, creativity is at your fingertips.   You are less likely to be dependent on unconscious beliefs and emotions like fear to guide your thinking or your behavior. You are more likely to be open to learning in a classroom or more creative when determining the diagnoses and treatment plan for your patient.

[1] “Oxytocin: The Love Hormone?” https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/275795.php

Stacie L. Walton MD, MPH, recently retired from Kaiser Permanente as a clinical Pediatrician serving in the roles of both Diversity Champion and Communication Consultant. She served as a medical consultant in diversity issues for healthcare providers and institutions for over 25 years.

Currently, her cultural competency themes highlight the impact of implicit bias and privilege in patient interactions and health outcomes, as well as, how effective patient-provider communication requires both competences and humility.

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