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Psychology | hormones

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I was reminded of a joke about British bank holidays some time ago. Why are they called bank holidays? Because the banks are closed. Why are the banks closed? Because it’s a holiday! Two things can be inter-dependant and this appears to be the case with our emotions and our hormones. We become stressed and we produce cortisol, but it also appears cortisol makes us feel stressed. It could be that when we become stressed we produce cortisol; that makes us feel even worse and we are then forced to take action. The action can be ‘fight or flight’, to face up to what is making us feel stressed or to run away.

It seems that cortisol also affects our memory when we are in a really stressful situation allowing us to take a snap shot memory of what is happening or a ‘flash bulb memory’ and store that memory complete with a memory of that emotion, that then helps us to avoid the same situation again or at least cope with it better. So when we start to produce cortisol there is a knock on effect, this might explain why severe stress can cause panic. These feelings and hormonal responses are primitive and have been around since we lived in caves. They give us the response to coming face to face with a wild animal in the forest. Do we fight or run like hell? The stresses we face in modern life are different, but we can still feel very threatened. The stress usually comes from other people, a co-worker, the boss, another driver on the road or a deep-seated fear.

The hormone that seems to help negate stress is oxytocin, the so-called ‘love hormone’ which is released when we feel empathy for other people. This hormone appears to be missing in psychopaths who feel no empathy for others and can cause other people severe stress by behaving manipulatively and cruelly. Is there a knock on effect with oxytocin too? Does empathy make us produce oxytocin and oxytocin make us empathic. There would appear to be. People who show a lot of empathy and are in a stable relationship have a calming effect on the people around them. People who are stressed tend to induce stress in others. It would seem that stress then, can be contagious.

Other hormones affect behaviour, such as testosterone. It is primarily a sex hormone and affects many physiological phenomena, but also tends to be associated with aggression. In a relationship it seems men tend to produce lots of testosterone initially, but go on to produce oxytocin later. Oxytocin is also associated with them accepting responsibility as fathers to their children.

Are our hormones slaves to our emotions? Are our emotions slaves to our hormones? Are our hormones and emotions co-dependant on one another. Once we love someone and start producing oxytocin, is there a knock on effect that makes us even more empathic and makes the emotion addictive?

This subject is complex and we don’t have all the answers and so more research needs to be done. It is however a fascinating subject that I think we should be aware of. It plays a part in our relationships, it can make us ill, it determines how we respond to fear and is very important. I am also curious to know if there is a single ‘happy’ hormone too. We can also ask if these hormones can be affected by looking at a beautiful picture, a log fire or staring into the flame of a candle.

There are more amazing blogs and ideas on the home page; do please comment if you found today’s post interesting.

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