The Brain on Love

Itʼs that time of year again! Itʼs February, and that means that love is in the air. For at least one day this month, all of our attention (whether you like it or not) will turn to the holiday of love. For some people, this is just the excuse theyʼve been waiting for to make a move on a secret crush or to begin a new relationship. Valentineʼs Day is not all rainbows and butterflies though. For those who feel compelled to purchase the perfect gift, make the right dinner reservation, or impress a new love, this holiday can be an especially stressful one.

The good news is that it may all be worth it; the experience of love can produce some profound health benefits. Before we get to that though, lets look at the physiological affects produced by the opposite feeling: fear. At any point in time, our brain is asking one question, “Am I safe?” If the answer is “no,” certain processes begin in order to prepare the body for the “Fight or Flight” response.

The Fight or Flight response readies the body to defend itself or to escape a threatening situation and live to fight another day i.e. survival. If anyone ever jumped out behind you to scare you, chances are you clenched your muscles, your heart rate increased, and you may have even let out a yell. Another example is the response that some people have to public speaking (sweaty hands, rapid heart rate, shallow breathing, flushed face, etc). Itʼs also the response we may have when we encounter a new love or a secret crush. In some ways, the physical symptoms we experience in response to a new love are actually the body letting us know that weʼre under stress! However, the long-term benefits of love far outweigh any short-term drawbacks.

The truth is that, over time, our body will adapt to whatever stressors we place on it. The key is to have the right adaptations so that we are led to greater overall health an well-being. Lets think about love and fear on opposite ends of the spectrum. You canʼt simultaneously experience both feelings and as a result, we want to spend the least amount of time possible in a state of fear so that we can spend more time moving towards love, growth, and harmony.

When we find ourselves in a state of fear, we may feel angry, defensive, reactive, or withdrawn. In contrast, the feeling of love helps us to feel more open, connected, and creative. Even the structure of our body changes in response to fear and love. When we feel stressed or anxious, our body actually assumes a “defense posture.” This position happens when we crouch down, bring our shoulders in tight, and shield our hearts. Those people with a sense of well-being and love tend to carry themselves with
their shoulders back, chest out, and head up. Literally the opposite of a person who is in defense!

The feeling of love also produces changes in brain chemistry, leading to positive effects throughout the whole body. Dopamine, oxytocin, and vasopressin levels increase, leading to a feeling of pleasure, trust, attachment, arousal and attraction. Seratonin levels also increase, leading to less reactive, aggressive behavior. Cognitive function also increases and results in better focus and understanding of your partner. At the
same time, feelings of sadness, fear, and anxiety are decreased. Long-term, this type of physiology actually increases our life enjoyment and overall health. In the same respect, a constant feeling of dread can actually reduce our quality and quantity of life.

As one sage said, energy flows where attention goes. If you choose to focus on things that bring about a feeling of joy, happiness, and love you have the opportunity to reap the benefits and actually create a sense of peace, gratitude, and abundance. In contrast, focusing on things that create anxiety and fear tend to sap our energy away. As is often the case, the choice is ours. So this Valentineʼs Day, try not to get caught up in the festivities of the holiday and instead embrace a feeling of love towards a friend, a partner, or a family member and experience the rewards of your brain on love.