When I wrote my last column extolling the virtues of self-love, social distancing was still new and kind of novel. But that was two weeks ago, and things feel a lot different now. While I maintain that masturbation will be a helpful coping skill for most, I won’t deny that even the most dedicated wanker is likely starting to feel a little lonely by now. And with the quarantine stretching a few weeks out in front of us, folks may feel a little hopeless.
Today, I want to talk about why we feel so down, and what we can do about it when we can’t leave our homes. Emotions start as a chemical reaction in our brains, with neurotransmitters telling our bodies to produce specific hormones. Those hormones then cause physical responses in our bodies (like increasing our heart rate or giving us a burst of energy for instance). One of the most important hormones for feeling good is oxytocin, and for a lot of us it’s in short supply right now.
Oxytocin is commonly known as the “hormone of love.” In high enough quantities, it causes rhythmic contractions of smooth muscles, including in the reproductive tract. During sexual activity, including masturbation, your oxytocin levels go up and eventually trigger orgasm. But oxytocin does a lot more than that. Oxytocin produces feelings of warmth, camaraderie, nurturing, happiness, and contentedness. Cuddling, sharing meals, laughing with friends—all of these keep our oxytocin levels up. I personally don’t really think of it as the hormone of love, but more as the “hormone of the three good Fs: good friends, good food, and good fucks.” The National Institute of Health likens the effects of oxytocin to those of Ecstacy, saying that oxytocin “heightens users’ feelings of trust and intimacy.” Most of us are used to a certain amount of oxytocin flowing in our bloodstreams all the time. That amount varies from person to person based on their own habits and behaviors.
If oxytocin causes all of these great feelings, it’s not surprising that low levels of oxytocin have been linked to depression, anxiety, and chronic pain. Additionally, we produce another hormone called prolactin that inhibits oxytocin production. Prolactin is the hormone that tells us when we’ve had enough of something. We get big pulses of it after orgasm, after a big meal, when a hug goes on uncomfortably long. It’s our bodies’ cue that it’s time to stop. We also make more prolactin during times of physical or emotional stress. And while I fully support our current Safer At Home order, it definitely qualifies as both physical and emotional stress.
If our prolactin levels are high, and our oxytocin levels are low, it makes sense that we might be struggling emotionally right now. The good news, there are things you can do at home, even if you’re by yourself, to boost your oxytocin levels and bring back a little of your joy.
Schedule video chats with friends and family members. I’ve seen lots of people having online coffee dates in the morning or virtual dinner parties in the evening. Spending time with people you love, even at a distance, boosts that oxytocin.
Along the same lines, check in with family members daily by phone, text, or chat. This will not only give you a chance to talk about your feelings, but it will also let you perform an act of service for someone. That’s important because willingly performing acts of service also helps with oxytocin production.
Get yourself a furry friend, even if you can only host them for a short period of time. Urban Cat Coalition has a great foster program here in Milwaukee, and there are other groups as well. Fostering can be a great way to get you some sweet company while you’re home from work, and help some worthwhile organizations deal with the stray pet population in our city.
There are other things you can do to help people out while social distancing. Venmo a friend a little cash, or read your nieces and nephews a story over the phone so your sister can take a shower. If you’re staying with family or roommates, give yourself a regular chore that is helpful to the household and perform it cheerfully. It sounds corny, but our brains reward us for a job well done, especially if it helps other people.
Doing things that are nurturing kicks oxytocin production into gear, and that includes food preparation. Cook your favorite meal or bake a tasty treat and enjoy it. Crafting, organizing, and caring for plants also fall into the nurturing category.
My last suggestion is just about the least Wisconsin thing you might ever read in my column, but just hear me out. Reduce your alcohol intake. Like prolactin, alcohol is an oxytocin antagonist and it will downright keep you from making enough. A glass of wine with dinner or a beer on your front porch is probably fine. But much more than that can leave you feeling pretty miserable afterward, even if you had fun while you were drinking.
Curious about cunnilingus? Anxious about anal? Do you have questions about queefs or problems with your prostate? Lucky Tomaszek is the education coordinator at The Tool Shed: An Erotic Boutique, Milwaukee’s only mission-driven, education-focused sex toy store. Send her an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and she’ll get back to you with an answer.