lessons in love & bravery according to neuroscience

want to be bold? first, be loved

“Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.” – Lao Tzu

This is not my opinion. This is science. 

Social psychologists say the five most significant sources of stress in life are death, divorce, illness, job loss, and moving. Low and behold, on my boyfriend’s moving day, anxious energy bounced all over the walls of the half-empty home. With too many things, too little time, not enough packing tape, and beer-compensated college kids dinging the walls with table ends, I struggled to dissipate the funk.

“What can I do to help?” I asked as I picked up, put down, and unhelpfully rearranged pocket squares and cufflinks. “Should I get out of your hair?”

I’m always in his hair.

“No,” he said. “Could you stay? Even if you don’t help, could you sit here?”

At first, I found this an odd request. Wouldn’t he be more productive without me sitting Indian-style style on his bed, dropping lunch crumbs all over his neatly packed tie collection? Did he enjoy my pestering questions? “Do you ever throw away business cards? Are you intentionally collecting dry cleaning receipts? Are you planning to develop these rolls of film? Can you even still do that” ¦?”

But every time a glimmer of stress bubbled to the surface, we’d make eye contact, smile, and, reassured, he’d calmly carry on. Then, before we knew it, he was packed, out of the house, all crises averted.

As it turns out, recent findings in neuroscience have pinned both the cause and the consequence of his request for me to stay. Both why he asked me to linger in the background and how it helped the situation.

First, for the why. Why did he want me to stay?

Oxytocin has become a term familiar even to lay populations. Endearingly termed the “love hormone,” oxytocin floods the brain when a mother is breastfeeding, you see a close friend, you make love to your partner. You get the picture” moments of intimacy, bonding, and trust.

A little-known fact about oxytocin is its role in the stress response. It plays just as big of a role as adrenaline. But why is a love hormone released when you’re stressed out?

It’s pretty intuitive. Quite simply, your body doesn’t want you to go through stress alone. So it nudges you to seek the support of others. This is evolution’s built-in airbag to prevent isolation and helplessness during times of stress. The oxytocin released from the stress of moving caused him to seek my support and comfort actively. Even if the support came with annoying questions.

And now, for the how. How did I help him?

Stressful situations activate a part of the brain called the amygdala. The amygdala is a fascinating little structure with astonishing complexity and all-encompassing effects on human behaviors, including sex, memory, decision-making, sociality, addiction, anxiety, PTSD, fear, and aggression.

And it’s shaped like an almond, which is cute.

So what does the amygdala have to do with his move? An incredible new fMRI study found that when subjects were exposed to pictures of emotional support, love, and affection, the amygdala did not react to subsequent threatening images meant to evoke a stress response. However, amygdales of subjects only shown frightening images lit up like Christmas trees.

Quite literally, love makes you less afraid.

Like Linus’ security blanket, loving relationships decrease the reactivity of the amygdala, and dampen your overall stress response. Likewise, social support and interpersonal warmth change how your brain reacts to your environment and enable you to take more significant risks.

My physical presence, which I thought to be obstructive and obnoxious, allowed him to perceive the stressful situation as less threatening subjectively. And to think, I assumed he just wanted my help folding”

So what’s the life hack here? 

How can we take the findings from a laboratory and apply them to the real world?

Listen to your brain. It’s smarter than your mind. Just like your body will crave water if you’re dehydrated, a stressed-induced oxytocin rush will make you crave social support, comfort, and interaction. Find yourself itching for a gals brunch, guy time, or long call with mom? Please don’t stay home with Netflix and dark chocolate (oh, I know). Do yourself a favor and listen. Let yourself be supported. Evolution built this into the standard model for us.

If you’re facing a significant life decision,” leaving a job, shaking a lousy relationship, starting your own business,” buffer yourself with supportive relationships. These relationships will change your brain into being braver. It’s not an overstatement to say that friends and family affect your brain like a courage drug. Even better than the second glass of wine”

In sum, the pre-condition to being bold is being loved. 

How great is that?

P.S. He did get those rolls of film developed?

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