What is Love? Understanding what is physically happening when we feel love.

Love is the most sung about emotion, it is the theme of our childhood movies, and our spiritual teachings. But what does it really mean to love? To love well? To find true love?

Love is something many of us spend time searching for, questing over, and trying to find. What is it?

Photo Credit: Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash 

What is love?

Love is often associated with terms like commitment, intimacy, attachment, passion, and jealousy, grief, heart-broken. 

Love is a feeling, it is a construct we use to identify somatic sensations we have and label as emotions. It is the word we use to describe what we like, want, appreciate. It is a word we use to differentiate where we will put our attention. We know love when we feel it and pine for it when we can’t find it. Most people describe love as a feeling of warmth, openness, and a sense of connection. Here’s what is physically happening when we feel love. 

The physicality of love.

The body communicates with many chemicals. Oxytocin is the “love” hormone. This chemical is responsible for our bonding. It is important when we give birth as it bonds us to the new baby. It is important and part of why we see such connection at rallies, group events, working toward a common passion, and helps our bodies regulate a variety of other hormones and processes to keep our physical system healthy and happy. 

The chemistry changes of vasopressin are also important in the love cocktail. Vasopressin is connected to our sense of protection and protecting those we love. It helps us get through and manage stressful events, and together these experiences help us bond with other mammals. 

We often symbolize love with images of our heart. From a basic anatomy, the heart, our symbol of love, is a unique organ. It is the only place we find cardiac muscle. This muscle contains its own electrical signal and communicates in its own system. The muscle sends electrical signals to its parts to beat and remain in rhythm. 

The heart is like our battery in our car. It keeps us going and sparks other systems. The heart is critical to our survival. It connects to every other part of our body through its role as the pump of our circulatory system and assisting our lymph system to rid our body of toxins. As the blood comes in and out of the heart it nourishes every other organ. It bathes our whole body in chemicals needed to facilitate a cascade of physical changes throughout our day. Carter and Porges (2013) state, “the protective effects of positive sociality seem to rely on the same cocktail of hormones that carry a biological message of ‘love’ throughout the body”, (pg 16), which the heart is responsible for trucking. Oxytocin plays a role in development of our fetal heart and protects our heart by converting stem cells into caridomyocytes (Carter & Porges, 2013). 

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Love = Bonding, stress, and aggression.

Emotions are felt on the somatic level (physical sensations) and are also complex physiological reactions with motor responses. In our brains love helps facilitate goal directed behavioral activities that help us connect to another person. This ensures survival of the species. Feeling love helps us cognitively too. Bianchi-Demicheli, Grafton, and Ortigue (2006) found that being in love led to faster response times on a lexicon experiment when the participants were “primed” with an associated message about the person they were in love with. 

Carter and Porges (2013) state “The same molecules that allow us to give and receive love, also link our need for others with health and wellbeing” through the benefits that oxytocin has on our physical systems and due to its role in bonding us to others. When we have more social support we are more resilient in the face of stressors and our oxytocin – vasopressin experiences are supportive to our wellbeing. This could be due to the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties oxytocin has. 

However when you have too much vasopressin without balancing oxytocin we have more aggressive behaviors. Infants with increased chronic exposure to vasopressin may over-react or be more defensive throughout their lives. Increased exposure may come from highly stressed or traumatized parents (Carter & Porges, 2013). 

Due to vasopressin’s link with androgen hormones (testosterone) males appear to be more sensitive to the effects of vasopressin. Following stressful experiences male prairie voles quickly form bonds with females, but females showed preference for other females following a stressful exercise (Carter, 1998). It appears males and females experience love and bonding differently due to differing pathways and experiences of these endogenous chemicals. 

Stressful experiences help us bond to others. This could be why we experience a sense of community following difficult events like storms, tests, rallies, assaults, and training exercises even when tragedy has occurred. 

Why love is helpful to your physical system and fear is not.

Love is Addicting. 

Love is so “addicting” is due to the way catecholamines reinforce our repeated behaviors. Catecholamines are chemicals like dopamine and norepinephrine. They are well known as the reward and pleasure neurotransmitters. These are the ones we are after when we use stimulants like cocaine. 

As a result of experiencing a pleasurable experience we feel the joy of dopamine. We like it, we want more of whatever it was that gave us that feeling. In substance abuse we often look to dopamine as a reason for someone’s struggle letting go of the drug. 

Catecholamines link our experiences with our desire. Dopamine plays a role in the release of oxytocin and plays a role in pair bonding (Carter, 1998). Think about how much you like sex. This is the dopamine-oxytocin cocktail at work. Orgasm dumps a slew of the “feel good” endogenous chemicals into our system all at the same time. We relax, feel content, experience joy, and feel connected to the person we are laying beside. We may tag this experience as love or just good feelings based on who is next to us. But we go back and do it again and again and again. 

Why We Like to Be Around Others When Feeling Love

Love like any other emotion love is a chemical, electrical, and vibrational shift in our physical body. Love comes with an openness to experiences that “lifts our moods”. It makes us see things more clearly, colors become more vibrant, and we find the sparkle in each experience. This is in part due to the endogenous opiates and dopamine we experience along side oxytocin and vasopressin responses when experiencing a sense of connectedness.

We are vibrational beings. As atoms communicate they shift vibrational states to match other atoms in their vicinity. This is why we can “feel” an energy in different environments. Our bodies register the vibrational quality and signal our brain to label it. When our brains “see” it we label the emotion based on our past experiences. We have cells called mirror neurons that register what others in our environment are doing. They “mirror” what is being expressed in our brains. When our mirror neurons fire we can understand what others are experiencing. We are not always right in our assessment, but we often have an accurate sense when we are paying close attention. We share in that experience with them through mirror neurons and limbic resonance in our brains and it feels good to “know” another.

When we experience love alongside others we have a sense of “being in a bubble” with that person or feeling “like no one else was in the room with us”. These experiences speak to the physical changes happening in our bodies and being matched by another. As noted above, this “matching” is important to our sense of wellbeing, stress management, and overall health. 

Together love shifts our physical structure and changes the way our body communicates with others in our environment. When we are steeped in love and joy others know and we lift them up by sharing these energies. Our bodies are made to communicate beyond our physical systems.

Our nervous systems and mirror neurons communicate our internal state to other mammals. When we are feeling more content, open, and expansive others benefit from our emotional experiences. It is why we like to be in contact with other people who are experiencing positive emotional states too. It is why we like to gather with those who have a common goal and share our values around cultivating happiness and love. 

When we connect with others experiencing these similar emotions we synergistically raise the experience for us all. We are greater than the sum of our two parts by sharing our love. 

Here a few ways we can cultivate and share our sense of love in the world. 

1) In Eastern traditions we look at chakras and the heart line. The heart chakra connects us to humanity. When we feel connected to others we often feel a warmth in our heart space. Try “breathing through your heart”. In this practice breathe in and out with the visual of that air moving through the heart center bathing you and the world in a sense of peace, connectedness, and goodwill. 

2) We talk about “broken hearts” and my “heart hurts” as we explain our struggles with connection. The heart line is a nerve running on the inside of the arm. By applying pressure to this line it helps our nervous system calm, which allows us to feel more safe with others and in the world. 

We can activate this nerve by reaching out to other people – hugs, holding hands, physical touch – can all help us feel more connected. You can also karate chop one hand in the palm of the other to quickly calm yourself. By stimulating this nerve you are slowing the heart rate, which in turn will slow your breath rate. Together they will shift you from a sympathetic stress state to parasympathetic rest state. 

3) Work on truly connecting with others. When you are out use eye contact to convey loving kindness to those you meet along your path. On the street, in stores, with family, friends, and co-workers share a smile that goes all the way to your eyes. Let others see the joy you posses and benefit from your expansiveness by sharing eye contact and a smile. These two gestures help release dopamine and oxytocin in both you and the person you are smiling at. Plus you’ll usually get a smile back and that means you’ll get another dump of dopamine and oxytocin. See above for the addictive effects of love and why this might feel so good. 

You can also manipulate these structures through quick breathing and physical exercises that help you connect more to yourself and to others. Here are 3 ways to take care of your heart using exercise and breath:

  1. Fast Cardio Blast
  2. A Look at Heart Disease
  3. Good Cardio Exercise

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References: 

Bianchi-Demicheli, F., Grafton, S. T., & Ortigue S. (2006). The power of love on the human brain. Social Neuroscience, 1(2), 90-103. DOI:10.1080/17470910600976547   

Carter, C. S., & Porges, S. W. (2013). The biochemistry of love: An oxytocin hypotheses. European Molecular Biology Organization Reports, 14(1). 12-16. DOI:10.1080/17470910600976547  

Carter, C. S. (1998). Neuroendocrine perspectives on social attachment and love. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 23(8), 779-818. 

Social Distancing While Parenting and Being a Social Worker

How many of us are feeling the effects of trying to balance our lives while social distancing? In this post a good friend of mine outlines her experience parenting, while working from home, while worrying about the effects of the global pandemic on her children. I think many of us can relate on all sorts of levels – parents or not.

Guest Post By: Megan Murphy, LCSW

I begin writing some scattered thoughts after the third night of tossing and turning and waking up with a sore jaw and neck, from all of the things my brain must be trying to work out at night.  I notice that mornings, I tend to feel strong and hopeful.  I am noticing that afternoons are really hard, and my mind truly wishes it could download or shut down, sleep or reset.

I am familiar with anxiety and depression.  I have dealt with these emotions at many different times in my life, and overall, I have been able to overcome them, or at least survive, cope with, and accept them in my life. 

This has been a very confusing time for my mind, like it is, for so many others.  My career as a Social Worker, who works with many vulnerable populations, including the severely and persistently mentally ill, has given me more strength and hope than I could ever explain in words.  I have seen people survive and thrive in circumstances, I am quite sure I would never survive.  I’ve seen the communities of the homeless, helping one another, and caring for one another.  I’ve seen families doing their best to support their own, with limited resources, sometimes limited intellectual capacities, and very often, with judgment from the outside world.  My career has taught me so much about resilience.  I am so grateful for these clients and to so many people I have worked with along the way, who put their hearts, souls, and brains into this work.  I have no doubt that the clients I work with, have taught me so much more than I could ever teach them.  I THANK them to no end!

It has been heartbreaking not to be able to support these people face to face, to help get them the resources that they need now more than ever.  However, I am grateful for a job that knows that keeping all of us (clients included) healthy in the short term, will only help, not hurt our mission, to help them in the long term.  Or, as a wise man (thanks Dad) told me, “sometimes you have to stay in the fight, to win the fight”. 

Parenting has been a whole different level of anxiety, acceptance, and resilience during this time.  I have two sons, ages 14 and 9.  We are beginning to work on schooling from home.  I have so many worries about this time in life for them.  For my 14-year-old, I worry about this time in his life.  He is supposed to be working on independence, separating himself from his parents and working on finding himself.  Peers are also such a huge part of learning and growing at his age.  It’s so hard to tell him that we don’t have answers about when life may be “normal” again.  It is so hard to say “no” to so many requests.  I am so proud of him.  I can tell he is frustrated and worried.  It always seems that right when it’s needed, he invites his brother into his room to play games with him.  He is an amazing human being.  I worry about my skills to work and teach him from home, while also paying attention to emotional needs.  

For my 9-year-old, I worry about his enthusiastic, open view of the world and an absolute need to connect, move, and be excited about life!  Lately, he has denied every request to go outside on a walk.  At first, I didn’t think much of it, but then I noticed he is anxious about it.  “Is it safe”, “what if I see a friend on a walk”, “Can we talk to each other”, “am I sick”, “are you sick”, “will we all get sick”.  “Are we safe”.  While my husband and I do our best to reassure him, we don’t have the answers.  He seems to feel best when saying, “family first, right mom”?  

While these things worry me, I am reminded of how much gratitude I have.  I do not have to parent without a partner.  We are able to do this as a team and take turns when the other is feeling overwhelmed.  So many do not have this and they are HEROES!  Sometimes, I get frustrated with my own anxieties and worries because I am SO aware of the hard times others have and are experiencing.  My life has been so easy overall.  I have never needed for a thing, and have always had an abundance of love in my life.  I feel guilty and ashamed sometimes that I have so much fear. 

I have parents who give me strength.  My father, a Vietnam marine, has this way of saying just the right things, to keep me focused and strong, during hard times.  My mom, an independent woman, who has been a caretaker of many kinds, keeps me sane with love and constant communication and ideas of ways to keep myself busy.  My brothers are both amazing and show me love and support, and I hope I do the same for them.

I have an extended family of aunts, uncles, and cousins, who check-in, send me love, and inspire me.  

I have friends that keep me grounded, strong, and grateful.  Each of them gives me something so special and unique and I cannot imagine life, or this crisis, without them.  We send each other videos, love, and ideas.  Let me tell you, these are amazing women!

The lack of answers is what continues to be the hardest.  I told my friend Jamie the other day, that while I am so aware that I am not alone, I “feel” alone.  She said, “yes, we are trying to accept and process something we have no answers to, and only fear.  We feel alone because we are not allowed to be around others”.  That felt so validating.  

So, for the moment, I plan to give myself grace.  I plan to accept that some moments I will feel strong, and others I may not.  I will do my best to show up for my family, friends, children, husband, and clients, with love, and understanding, that they too, will have good moments and not so good moments.

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Spiritual Sunday: Communicating with something larger than yourself

Good communication begins with us. It is our responsibility to take care of ourselves and build a strong sense of self that doesn’t fear differences. This allows others and ourselves to show up authentically without feeling judged, attacked, or invalidated just because someone has a different opinion. Very difficult, but worth the try.

For us to be really good at communicating with other people we must be able to communicate well with ourselves. We need to have a strong grounding in our own values, viewpoints, and opinions and a strong sense of self. These allow us to stand tall in our own truth while allowing others to stand tall in their own. To build this strength it is important to cultivate practices that allow for reflection and communication with something larger than ourselves. 

The concept of something larger than ourselves exists in many paradigms and practices. These range from ideas related to spirit, the earth/nature, to the psychology of how mammals communicate somatically. In the end it does not matter what you chose as your paradigm of existence. 

What matters is how you cultivate your practices to maintain connection to something larger than yourself. What matters is that you recognize that we are all connected and how you act in your private life influences other humans and other systems (like water supplies for example). What matters is understanding that there is a shared aspect to everything we do. By taking time to recognize our connections to something larger than ourselves we relate better to those around us. 

When we are better able to relate to those around us, the environment we are in, and be open to the differences between us we are more grounded in ourselves and less susceptible to the vulnerability created when someone has a different opinion, value, or viewpoint than we do. This creates easier conversations and more effective communication for everyone, thus creating more acceptance, less judgment, and more openness to those around us. It also helps create a sense of responsibility for our personal role in helping to create a healthy, vibrant, and just society. 

Happy V-Day. The Emotion of Love

Are you operating out of love or out of fear? Can you tune into your capacity for connection, compassion, and acceptance by loving others deeply … even those who are not like you? Even those you do not like? Even yourself?

Many people love today, many people hate today. Today is the day we celebrate the concept of “being in love”.

Love is our most powerful emotion. It has the highest vibration and is the most talked about in all spiritual cultures. It is the emotional state we are aiming to get. This does not mean we are all working to get to intimate sexual love – but to the power of compassion, connection, and recognition of self in other.

Being in a state of compassion, connection, and acceptance allows us to integrate a number of our systems for optimal function. A healthy human is one who is integrated and has flexibility in response options to both mental and physical health issues. The emotion of love brings our systems into integration with self, others, environment. This integration impacts our physical system and moves our tissues toward physical health. It aligns our mental health with openness for experience which allows us to be flexible in our choices – thus choosing the best option for the moment we are in right now.

The difficult part … most of us have been hurt after expressing the emotion of love. We’ve been hurt by those who have pledged to love us, those who care for us, and ourselves. We have extended our precious heart only to have it smashed to smithereens (I know I’m being a bit dramatic, but that’s what it feels like to a lot of us).

As a result of this hurt, we extend our love conditionally. We open up in limited ways. We fear those who are different than us. We hold back and judge instead of open up into compassion and acceptance. We do not accept others and we do not accept ourselves.

We close ourselves off to love and its benefits out of fear. Fear and hate lay at the lower end of vibrational measurements. They constrict our physicality and mental abilities. In efforts to stay safe we rally and protect our own, cut ourselves off from others, and stay small. The energy of this constriction leads to more fear, more constriction, and more physical health problems. The way to combat loving others fully when it is scary it to begin by loving ourselves fully.

As you contemplate what love means in your life today … make sure you reach out and pay attention to yourself. Love yourself … fully … completely … and honestly.

If you are having trouble loving yourself, you will have trouble fully loving others unconditionally. If you cannot love yourself fully it may be time to do some therapy around the topic. For many of us, we cannot fully embrace the greatness that is us. In my office I ask, “what’s so great about you”? About 75% of the time people look up confused and unable to answer the question. As therapy unfolds they begin to have less problems with this question, and can answer with confidence about the greatness within.

Two things are true – you are good enough and there is always room to grow. Love yourself fully today.

I Saw God Today

I saw God today. I also saw God yesterday, and I am pretty sure I’m going to see God tomorrow. Everywhere I look, God is present. Everyday, I sit with people and listen to their stories. Deeply listen. I listen under the crustiness of day to day operations and listen into the core of who they are. Everyday, I see examples of amazing resilience and this thing we call being human. As a result of being intensely connected to another I see the pulse of our universe. I see God. 

Those of you who know me well, know I’m not what you’d call a religious person, however everyday I feel this pulse and feel the universe breathe. Everyday I hear the beauty that surrounds us and dive deeply into the moments that matter. Mostly through words and physical sensations – our innate human experience. What’s incredibly curious to me is the way we think and feel so different than everyone else, yet we are so much the same. 

Each story in my day is unique, often I have no idea how the plot will twist yet the themes of the day remain the same. Am I good enough, can I be loved, will I make it, what if I fail, will people show up to help me, can I trust myself, am I safe. When I can’t figure out the nuanced theme, I just go for the big one – am I worthy, do I matter. 

Our personal brand of wounding lends itself to all sorts of manifestations in our lives. If I feel no one will help me, I’ll learn to do it all by myself. If I feel like I am unlovable, I’ll either work really hard to please everyone or I’ll become aloof and push people away. If I feel like I am not safe, I’ll make sure to be part of communities with very clear lines and defined roles so I can rest in the safety of knowing the “truth”. In the end … we are all ok. 

We are all lovable. We are all worthy. We all matter. When we can embrace our inner essence we open the door for others to embrace theirs. When we shine our inner lights bright, they get to shine theirs bright, too. This is very very very … very … important to the world. If I do not shine my light bright, I cannot fully bring my uniques gifts into the world. If you do not shine your fully your’s do not enter either. 

This creates a situation – kinda like the one where my grandma would lose the 1 puzzle piece that completed the 1,000 piece monstrosity. The world is incomplete when it’s missing pieces. We are each a piece and must show up fully to make the puzzle complete. 

Everyday, I am surrounded by the magic that manifests when we are authentic in our personal experience. It’s like standing in a dark yard quietly watching the fireflies light up the night. When one doesn’t shine I can’t see them, when too many don’t shine the yard is dark. When they are all busy blinking off and on it is breathtakingly beautiful. 

Please allow yourself the gift of living authentically in your gifts, shining your light bright. I want my dark yard to be lit up by your magnificence. 

And as always, if you are struggling you can schedule a 15 min Q&A appointment to see if it’s time to give yourself the gift of therapy. When else can you talk about yourself for an hour with someone trained to deeply listen to your core, not just the story you tell yourself.