The Power of Love

“Where there is love there is life.” ~ Mahatma Ghandi

Love is deeply important to all of us and pervades every aspect of our lives through romance, family, friendships, music, and works of art. Love has a profound effect on our mental and physical states, as we are often consumed by the powerful experience of falling in love or the suffocating pain of a broken heart or bereavement. The loss or failure of love can lead to mental disorders, unhealthy coping mechanisms, and serious physical illness.

Positive and supportive relationships, be they romantic, friendship, or familial, promote higher levels of emotional and mental well-being. Love and intimacy are linked to higher self-esteem, increased self-worth, improved confidence, and an increased chance of living a long, healthy life.

Love is consistently linked to decreased levels of stress and encourages people to incorporate productive positive behaviors into their everyday lives rather than turning to destructive coping mechanisms such as substance misuse.  People in lasting relationships are additionally far less likely to develop mental health disorders.

The most common mental health disorders are depression and anxiety disorders, which affect 40 million adults in the United States.[1]  It has been evidenced that a long-lasting marriage reduces depression in both women and men.[2]   Additionally, it has been demonstrated that marriage and positive social support improve prognoses in chronic illnesses such as cancer and myocardial infarctions by alleviating symptoms of anxiety and depression often associated with these conditions.[3],[4]

Partnership and friendship can help us navigate life’s challenges, with support and companionship boosting our mood, confidence, and overall wellbeing. By contrast, studies have shown that single people are more likely to have higher levels of stress hormones than those in committed relationships.[5] Stress is connected to a wide variety of chronic health conditions including lowered immune system, depression, anxiety, chronic pain, fatigue, digestive issues, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.

The Neuroscience of Love

It is evidenced that love alters your brain chemistry. Several neurotransmitters are activated when experiencing intimacy with another person. However, the two key chemicals are dopamine and oxytocin.

  • Dopamine is released when we experience something pleasurable such as eating, sexual intercourse, listening to music, or spending time with loved ones. It has been demonstrated that simply thinking about people we love triggers the release of dopamine and encourages us to initiate contact with them. This is vital to our brain’s “reward system” because it reinforces these pleasurable behaviors and ultimately leads to our survival and continued evolution as we are encouraged to seek out ideal mates. 
  • Oxytocin is key in the regulation of social behavior, mental health, stress responses, immune system optimization, and cardiovascular health.[6] This hormone essentially calms our nervous system and helps people  bond.  It is popularly known as the “cuddle hormone” and is present during acts of intimacy such as holding hands, physical touch, looking into someone’s eyes, or petting a family pet.

The experience of falling in love is often intensely pleasurable, uninhibited, and exciting. We may have a pounding heart, butterflies in our stomach, “feel out of control,” or have strong biological, sexual urges towards another person. These sensations and emotions are largely attributable to the above neurotransmitters, and it is essential to experience a healthy balance of these chemicals along with a healthy attachment style if we wish to benefit from the health benefits and longevity that love and connection can bring.

Love and Childhood Development

The relationship that we develop with our primary caregiver as a baby is essential to the development of our emotional and mental wellbeing.  Dr. Sue Carter, Director of the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University, has intensively researched the value of oxytocin in childhood within human development and behavior.  Dr Carter describes Oxytocin as having a “unique and unusually broad profile of biological and behavioral effects.”[7] It is understood to promote an intense state of physiological relaxation that helps facilitate integral processes such as consensual sex, birth, lactation, and motherhood. 

Through these processes, oxytocin encourages social sensitivity, empathy, and reciprocal attunement between the child and primary caregiver. These are skills that the child carries into adult life and play a vital role in social behavior, friendships, and the processing of memories.[8]

The release of oxytocin in childhood allows a child to learn how to create and experience stable, loving relationships as well as ensuring that we seek and receive support from others throughout our life in times of need.

Love and Substance Use

It is evidenced that the lack of a secure attachment style in childhood significantly increases the risk of a substance use in later life. If a child struggles to build positive relationships with others, they are more likely to have low self-esteem, low self-value, low confidence, and social isolation, which dramatically raise the risk of mental health disorders including substance misuse.

Dopamine’s powerful reward circuit dominates the activities that we find pleasurable and which we turn to for comfort, reassurance, or  a boost.  If a person is lacking in intimacy or does not have a variation of positive behaviors to engage with, then Dopamine is likely to instead reinforce a range of negative behaviors such as substance misuse, gambling, or love or sex addiction.  The brain will misguidedly encourage the person to seek out these activities or substances time and again in order to benefit from the chemical “reward” associated with our survival and evolution.[9]

Oxytocin has been found to play a modulatory role in drug addiction, and studies have suggested that the poor development of oxytocin during childhood can lead to addictive behaviors.[10] A study by Emory University reviewed the presence of drug addictions alongside research on social attachments. The authors concluded that, “[t]he psychology of human love and drug addiction share powerful overlaps at virtually every level of the addictive process, from initial encounters to withdrawal.”[11]

Conclusion

Love is a dynamic biological process triggered by social interaction.  Love is multi-faceted and derives from emotional, cognitive, and physiological processes that influence not only all future interactions but also our mental and physical well-being.

The maintenance of positive, loving relationships is essential for our mental and physical health and a long-lasting, fulfilling life. For successful treatment of substance abuse, we would benefit from a greater understanding of the psychology of human love, the roles these neurotransmitters play, and their development in early childhood. A range of loving relationships is essential for a healthy body, mind, and spirit and is extremely beneficial for a successful  journey to long-term recovery.

If you are concerned about any issues discussed in this blog, please contact Heather R. Hayes & Associates.  Call 800-335-0316 or email info@heatherhayes.com today.


[1] “Facts & Statistics | Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA”. Adaa.Org, 2021, https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/facts-statistics.

[2] Wood RG, et al. The Effects of Marriage on Health: A Synthesis of Recent Research Evidence. Mathematica Policy Research, Inc. for Department of Health and Human Services. June 19, 2007.

[3] Burgess C, et al. Depression and anxiety in women with early breast cancer: five year observational cohort study. BMJ. 2005; 330 :702

[4] Frasure-Smith N, et al. Social support, depression, and mortality during the first year after myocardial infarction Circulation. 2000;101(16):1919-24.

[5] Maestripieri, Dario et al. “Between- and Within-Sex Variation in Hormonal Responses to Psychological Stress in a Large Sample of College Students”. Stress, vol 13, no. 5, 2010, pp. 413-424. Informa UK Limited, doi:10.3109/10253891003681137.

[6] “Birth and Beyond: The Far-Reaching Influence of Oxytocin”. Research Features, 2021, https://researchfeatures.com/birth-and-beyond-the-far-reaching-influence-of-oxytocin/.

[7] “Birth and Beyond: The Far-Reaching Influence of Oxytocin”. Research Features, 2018, https://researchfeatures.com/birth-and-beyond-the-far-reaching-influence-of-oxytocin/.

[8] Sue Carter, C. “Oxytocin and Human Evolution”. Behavioral Pharmacology of Neuropeptides: Oxytocin, 2017, pp. 291-319. Springer International Publishing, doi:10.1007/7854_2017_18. Accessed 23 June 2021.

[9] “The Power of Love: How Relationships Benefit Body and Mind”. Medicalnewstoday.Com, 2021, https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/289386#Love-is-not-the-same-for-everyone.

[10] Alves, Emily et al. “Early Social Environment Affects the Endogenous Oxytocin System: A Review and Future Directions”. Frontiers In Endocrinology, vol 6, 2015. Frontiers Media SA, doi:10.3389/fendo.2015.00032. Accessed 23 June 2021.

[11] Burkett, James P., and Larry J. Young. “The Behavioral, Anatomical and Pharmacological Parallels Between Social Attachment, Love And Addiction”. Psychopharmacology, vol 224, no. 1, 2012, pp. 1-26. Springer Science and Business Media LLC, doi:10.1007/s00213-012-2794-x. Accessed 23 June 2021.

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