Stress: Internal assassin or mainline to empathy?

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By Danette Vernon

I was vegetating in a check-out line a few years ago, surveying the incidental mini-dramas going on around me when I saw a very agitated mom drop a toddler — intentionally — into the bottom of a shopping cart. The toddler had picked up a candy bar and hadn’t put it back quite quickly enough when ordered to do so. Maybe he’d learn his lesson from being dropped into a shopping cart. This mom had an older son who looked to be about 8. He had picked a candy bar as well and wasn’t putting his back any faster than his little brother. Her response was a punitive yank on his clothes that sent him reeling away from her, startled, but off in the right direction for putting the candy bar back on the shelf. The older child had Down’s syndrome.

I stood there in disbelief, angry. I didn’t know what in the world to say that might make a difference to this obviously stressed family. I wasn’t alone in this viewing of family drama. It seemed that everyone nearby felt the same cross purposes of adrenalin and social immobility.

Then, with quiet deliberation, an older woman got out of line behind me with her cart and joined the line where the woman and children were. The older woman smiled and spoke to the family. She was obviously complimenting the young mom on her children. She reached out as she did so, touching each of the boys lightly.

After a few moments, even from an inaudible distance, it was obvious that everyone felt “liked,” and “likable” again, even the mom. Then the older woman got out of line and walked away.

It was like watching an angel at work, or someone prompted by oxytocin.

Kelly McGonogal, a professor in both business and medicine at Stanford University, unveils new research that connects stress to empathy. Many people are familiar with the fact that oxytocin is released when you are hugged or hug someone else. Kelly reveals that oxytocin is also a part of the “stress response” your body generates. Under ideal circumstances, oxytocin enhances your ability to be empathetic to others and yourself. Oxytocin, in part, is designed to prompt you to seek support, whether in the form of physical contact, or through telling someone how you feel, instead of bottling up your feelings, or taking out your less-than-stellar feelings on those around you.

Oxytocin does more, however, than connect you socially when you are stressed. It’s an anti-inflammatory (inflammation in the body is the root of many serious ailments), and helps heart cells heal and regenerate from the damage of stress. Overall oxytocin promotes an internal hardiness and a faster recovery from the ill effects of stress.

So the next time your heart is pounding and your palms are sweaty with the adrenalin rush of stress, instead of allowing yourself the all too familiar responses of fear, anger, or impatience, try following the prompts of the hormones racing through your body and CONNECT. Give oxytocin a chance to work its “angel-like” miracles in your life.