I originally wrote this article for Valentine’s Day, but love is important EVERY day!
Love’s a mystery. Love’s all you need. Love’s a chemical. Love’s a verb. Love’s magical. We sure hear a lot about love, especially around Valentine’s, but do we really know what it is?
Judging from the popularity of songs, books, and movies about love, love is an important topic. From a psychological/evolutionary perspective, it’s important too. Evolutionary psychologists believe that the development of a long-lasting feeling of love ensured that parents continued to make the investment of time and energy required to raise young mammals. This nurturance is not evident in most reptiles and insects. It is theorized that a chemical called ‘oxytocin,’ aka ‘the cuddle hormone,’ promotes this nurturance. Oxytocin is also implicated in sustaining romantic relationships beyond the initial sexual attraction. Oxytocin even helps build and maintain non-romantic relationships, such as those with friends and family.
Of course, there are many types of love. We often make statements like, ‘I love pizza,’ or ‘I love everyone’ without meaning that we want to cuddle with our food or with every person on the planet. There is also the type of feelings, sometimes called love, associated with sexual attraction and infatuation. These feelings can be extremely fleeting and are also based on hormones (for sexual attraction: testosterone and estrogen are involved; and for infatuation: dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine). These last three hormones have been implicated in addictions, so the phrase ‘love is an addiction,’ is quite accurate when we’re talking about infatuation. The kind of love that researchers in couples counselling think is imperative for our romantic relationships to last, however, is based on the oxytocin kind of love.
Each and every one of us requires this long-lasting, secure type of love to thrive, whether from our caregivers when young, or from adult relationships. When we are deprived of this love and deep connection to others for too long, it starts to negatively affect our nervous systems. Researchers have found profound changes in brain structures amongst those who are deprived of this safe and secure type of love. The good news is that the brain is malleable. We can heal these damaged structures with long-lasting healthy relationships, or psychotherapy.
Unfortunately, in Western cultures, we have been encouraged to be ‘independent’—and often this results the perception that needing a relationship is a sign of weakness. If you look at our species’ biological evolution, however, this is simply not true. We need strong, secure attachments with our early caregivers and in later relationships to be strong and healthy. It is natural to want to spend time with our loved ones, especially if we are distressed. If they are lovingly attached to us, they will want the same thing. This reciprocal attachment makes INTERdependence a healthier, happier goal than the ‘independence’ so often valued in Western cultures.
We may not have a definitive meaning for love, but biology and psychology are providing us with many clues about what love is, primarily that love is healthy, natural, and GOOD for us. If you find yourself not in a romantic relationship this Valentine’s, don’t despair, love for your bestie or love for your favourite family members is just as restorative as the romantic kind, so grab that special person on February 14th and celebrate the most wonderful of feelings.
Originally published in The Grapevine, (January/February 2016), Issue 12.26
I wrote this article back in October for The Grapevine November 12-26, 2015 Issue No. 12.23 “Active and Healthy Living” Column:
What is mental health? The term might seem self-explanatory: mental + health = a healthy mind. Maybe you’re thinking that this post could just end here, but I’d like to offer the idea that mental health extends beyond the individual’s mind to include the individual’s physical health, spirituality, community, and environment.
This holistic conceptualization of mental health isn’t my own idea—it’s been around for a long time; however, what IS relatively new, is the notion that mental health is only about the individual, especially the individual’s thoughts, that we can change our mental health merely by thinking differently.
Despite the common idea that our mind and body are separate, I think many of us consciously or unconsciously accept that our mental health is closely connected to our physical health—how else would words such as ‘hangry’ (when hunger leads to an angry mood) have come into existence? New words reflect the changes in common understanding, so it’s quite possible we all agree physical and mental health are intimately connected.
Spirituality is often thought of in terms of believing in something beyond our physical world like God, an afterlife, or karma, but it can also be defined as the meaning we give our lives and the world. Finding a greater meaning or purpose in our lives has been shown to boost our mental health, in fact; a type of therapy was developed by Victor Frankl, a man who was able to derive meaning from his experience as a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp.
Even if we are fortunate to have a healthy body and to have developed a robust belief system, these two gifts may not survive if we are mired in an unhealthy community. During Frankl’s imprisonment, he was surrounded by other prisoners who shared and validated his experience. Imagine what it is like for someone who is suffering and does not have such a community. As social animals, one of our greatest human needs is to belong, without which, it is very difficult to have good mental health. Just getting out to a public space or spending time with a pet can help us feel connected. It isn’t the number of connections we have that is important, but that we have at least one good connection that is supportive and nurturing.
Sometimes, individual behavioural quirks can prevent a person from establishing good connections with others, and a person might seek counselling to overcome these, but it is not entirely the individual’s responsibility to fit in. The community needs to strive for tolerance and inclusiveness.
The environment is an important part of our community and it needs to be supportive too. Without a safe and clean environment to work and play in, we will soon see our mental health deteriorate.
With all these components of mental health, it’s clear that it takes effort to create and maintain mental health, just as it does to create and maintain physical health, but the benefits to the individual and the community are a big pay off. If you are feeling down or bored, take a look at these different areas of your life to see if you can make an adjustment in one of the areas. Even a small change in one area can make a big difference.
Many know the phrase ‘culture shock’ and some may know the term ‘reverse culture shock’. Both terms are often used to describe the disequilibrium experienced when one travels or lives to another country for an extended period and then returns. The discomfort felt can be magnified by an initial feeling of excitement and joy at entering a new culture and then returning to one’s culture of origin. The ‘honeymoon’ period builds up our expectations and obscures any problems on entry/re-entry, creating a double whammy effect once one starts living an ordinary life. Continue reading