I’ve written a lot about most of the other neurotransmitters (NTs) over the course of this blog but never, to my knowledge, much about oxytocin.
In the warm fuzzy haze of experiencing it, it suddenly seems clear to me, as a felt experience, that my NTs form a sort of pyramid:
When I’ve got enough oxytocin then I’m sort of neutrally, undemandingly “fine” and unusually non-analytical for me (no, that’s not quite true as I’m having these thoughts on an oxytocin wave but there’s no need to fix anything; its more like a moment of insight or extra expansive, quite unopinionated clarity has flooded my brain). If I’m short of oxytocin then I lean more into a need for serotonin, as in, to at least be in a good, positive mood about things (a pint glass half full kind of feeling) but if that’s running short, as it often is for me at the darker end of the year or when experiencing higher pain levels, I need more dopamine (ie. to feel exited or titillated about something I’m experiencing, or about to) and if that’s depleted I lean into noradrenaline (norepinephrine) as in, the place where experiencing any kind of a buzz (even a stressful one) is better than feeling nothing to prove I’m alive.
I should qualify “pyramid” formation and please remember I’m a visual thinker but this feels particularly apt. Oxytocin occupies the point at the top because I don’t seem to need much to enjoy a positive effect yet it’s calming influence trickles down to all the other levels, next serotonin which, as long as I have a modicum of this I can keep my head above water. Then once I’m into the layer where dopamine is the name of the game the fixation with dopaminergic behaviours gets bigger and wider in my area of focus and of course, at base level (rock bottom) I think we all know that the fight or flight zone, where life is all about transient excitement, stress and survival can feel all consuming and spilled out across every area of our lives. It gets harder to bounce back from that.
The thing is, oxytocin relies heavily on human to human contact (skin contact, cuddles, positive social interaction) and I’m autistic. That’s not to say I don’t want any contact at all but that I’m highly selective…about who, when, how much physical contact I have.
With my husband, I notice immediately positive effects of a well-timed cuddle. Take this morning when we snuggled up…for the first time in probably weeks my mind went completely still, neutral and calm. It completely stopped processing about anything at all, at least for a while, which is something that nearly never happens to me, ever. I just don’t know how to “not think” but with oxytocin released in my brain I didn’t need to know, it just was and I felt all the benefits flood my entire bloodstream, calming my nervous system right down, steadying my heart rate and my breathing, relaxing even those deepest muscles and parts of my fascia that I don’t even realise are normally holding me gridlock. I felt a comfortable warmth flood my entire system and utterly calm, like I imagine a baby might feel surrendered in their mother’s arms and without a care in the world.
As I’ve written about before, cuddles were almost impossible to come by when I was a child. My mother was, in hindsight, autistic and, though she showed her love in countless ways, affectionate contact wasn’t really one of them and she was not someone whose space you felt you could invade. I might get my hand held or get touched as a byproduct of being dressed, bathed (usually by my dad), sat on a knee because we ran out of chairs or something like that, but only those things when I was very small and there was always a limit to contact in our family that I never knew to question until I was decades older. It was also, I should add, the 1970s and parenting was very different, more aloof, in those days. My older sister took care of me a lot, early on, and though she sang to me, read stories and met some of my needs, I was hardly to be found hanging like a tree sloth around her neck as it’s just not her way.
With my ex, contact was strictly transactional on the road to delivering some sort of expectation. I was expected to demonstrate my gratitude and responsibility “as a woman” by performing various perfuntory deeds that involved physical contact but there was never any hugging, handholding or proper kissing, not even at the start. Not his fault, I guess in hindsight, as he had his own childhood baggage and I chose him, presumably, due to my own prior-expectations and the need to process them by looking them straight in the eye and finding this didn’t work for me.
With my husband, we’re much better than that by a long stretch but we fall out of the habit. My chronic pain, which makes him wary of hurting me, and things like last year’s intense heat wave curtail how much we touch in that entirety neutral way (without expectations) required for oxytocin. We got out of the habit of holding hands first thing in the morning, hugging in the kitchen while the kettle boiled or me dozing with my head in his chest and then we forgot to notice things had changed. After a while I get into the mindset of “I’m fine, we’re fine” and as long as we’re still talking and laughing plus all those other things couples do, I tend to sweep the hugging, cuddling thing under the carpet (after all, I didn’t have much precedent for the first 36 years). Added to the fact we lost our dog in summer 2021 (pets have a hugely positive effect on oxytocin) and the fact my POTs symptoms have peaked (as in, my autonomic nervous system is in disarray…oxytocin plays a key part in stabilising this) I realise my oxytocin levels have probably fallen right down over the last 18 months; telling me its time I addressed this. Incidentally, oxytocin is known to be an inbuilt barrier to pain, acting as an anti-inflammatory and protecting your entire nervous system by helping your blood vessels stay relaxed during stress, an important consideration to anyone suffering with the chronic variety!
Because, with all this oversight, and autistic or not, I now realise I need oxytocin in my life. In fact, possibly because I am autistic, I may need it more (I’ve attached an article covering all the reasons its so important relative to autism, not least because levels are known to be sometimes lower in the case of autism, and all the positive effects it can have such as on social interactions and eye contact; though I don’t believe in trying to “fix autism” its well worth a read as an insight into what oxytocin does). Another insight I have had from personal experience, I like to rock (I have a chair) and this tends to get labeled “stimming” in autism circles however, though I do have other stimming behaviours (which are much more to do with trying to stimulate dopamine) rocking feels much more associated with a need for more oxytocin, as per when a parent rocks their child to sooth them. I need that cool calm wave of neutrality washing in to reset my NS from time to time, I need it to flush out all the corners of tension that otherwise get to stagnate and hold me in a state of gridlock and the tendency to overthink or spiral into overwhelm. I need my mind to become still…at least for a few minutes at a time…and then, when it inevitably gets going again, to come in clearer, calmer, more balanced, less judgementally and without all the undertones of flight or fight that are otherwise there because life can be such a struggle (especially when you are autistic).
In other words, I realise I need to spend far longer (more routinely) at the top of my NT pyramid so that I’m not so quick to tumble down through the layers to the point I’m desperate for a dopamine fix or, ultimately, need the stimulation of adrenaline to me feel alive. I would like to spend more time feeling topped up with serotonin and where dopamine is an excited feeling, not a last ditch attempt to stimulate with the wrong kind of thrills (to make do for the fact I haven’t managed to feel unconditionally “good” for such a long while that some desperate part off me tries to “fix” this with a behaviour). If I can at least start out from the point of enjoying an oxytocin flush from time to time then it feels more likely I will remember that feeling good doesn’t have to be so complicated or conditional!
This is an important lesson to learn and perhaps my autism made me slow to learn it. Or, maybe an absence of adequate oxytocin in childhood set me up to be this way because the ground rules weren’t introduced to me by my parents holding me and rocking me back and forth or just letting me curl up on their lap when I needed that simple recourse. In my early life, I can recall getting my oxytocin fixes from lying in bed with a good book all alone in my room on the sort of day when the sun was shining and I didn’t have to go to school (I just looked this up and I was right, it turns out that character driven stories induce oxytocin so maybe my hunger for it is what fuelled my young passion for reading). Much later, I can recall being flooded with it when I breastfed my baby (which I did for a far longer time than most). Mostly, life too quickly swept me into the layers where I needed a dopamine fix to get me by…certainly, by teenage, that was what was happening and it became a stuck point that looks a lot like ADHD to me (not surprising that oxytocin is said to reduce impulsivity).
It’s never too late; we all share pretty much the same neurology and though it may not be so automatic for someone wired like me to experience the oxytocin effect compared to someone who was bathed in it during their most formative years held in their mothers arms for long unconditional periods of time, I do know what if feels like and I can still prioritise it over, say, a dopamine fix. It takes a little more for me to be able to surrender to that kind of intimacy or even remember to consider it but with the right person, and I have one, I can do that so I should try to take advantage of that, not just for my own better health but for his as I know I can seem so aloof and self-suffiencient at times that he doesn’t know how to instigate without risking overstepping. Its down to me to send out the signals that it’s OK to hug for no better reason that “why not?” and if anything, to bring in a benchmark of, say, three cuddles a day synced with meal preparations or let’s lie there and hold hands like we used to before getting up in the morning. I know not everyone has such a person, I count myself lucky after my earlier experiences of relationship but the one thing we may all have access to is a pet and this is also making me rethink whether we get another dog. Listening to music is another way of boosting oxytocin and that meaningful contact with other people thing could be in the form of a great conversation, not necessarily face-to-face, or doing something to help someone.
By thinking of it as an essential daily dose, perhaps my autistic brain can come to terms and learn a new pattern (like those monks that advocate hugging therapy) and reap all the benefits.