By Emily Reiblein
Trust is critical in any relationship. It provides a measure of psychological safety that creates a difference in how we feel about colleagues, friends and family. Research now shows that trust is initiated in a cascade of internal chemical reactions that come together and open the doorway to unsurpassed teamwork, strong relationships and a boost in mental health.
Over the past few years, trust in the workplace has become a focus of endless research. Paul J. Zak (Neuroscience of Trust, January-February 2017) says that “employees in high-trust organizations are more productive, have more energy at work, collaborate better with their colleagues, and stay with their employers longer than people working at low-trust companies. They also suffer less chronic stress and are happier with their lives, and these factors fuel stronger performance.” Zak’ s research further pointed toward the trust mechanism in the brain revolving around the hormone oxytocin.
Oxytocin is a hormone produced by the body that acts as a messenger. It is the result of a cascade of chemicals we mentioned, starting with the releases of dopamine in the brain (the pleasure hormone). Dopamine then turns into the hormone serotonin (known to stabilize mood and immune system booster), which in turn signals for oxytocin to be produced in tissues throughout the body. Oxytocin generally amplifies our positive feelings toward others with noted increases in feelings generosity, forgiveness, trustworthiness, joy and security. Oxytocin drives an individual toward some of the basic elements that make-up integrity, benevolence, competence and predictability that are all identified by Adam Waytz at the Kellogg School of Management as being the foundations of trust. A lack of oxytocin in human beings has been shown to cause depression and anxiety. They tend to withdraw, mistrust, and feel the effects of mental deterioration.
The trust factor can also be influenced through lifestyle choices. Oxytocin is known to release during times we have physical contact with others—between a mother and child, a husband and wife, and even when hugging a friend. Oxytocin levels in mariners or seafarers, who may stand alone on a bridge for days on end, can suffer due to reduced contact. For all of us, COVID-19 has hit this hormone hard as well. Remote work removes contact, and with it, the ability to use Oxytocin to build trusting relationships.
Here are a few considerations that may help to boost oxytocin in times of physical separation.
- Be Seen and Listen Joyously: New digital opportunities leave the doorway open for oxytocin to be a part of the chemical mix. When meeting, turn on your computer or tablet camera and be seen. Make sure the camera works well enough and is placed in such a position that eye contact can be established. Linda Jackson, a “Positive Psychology” lecturer, presented a review of research on oxytocin and eye contact. In it, she said that maintaining eye contact for 30 to 60 seconds triggers the release of oxytocin. Researchers have also found that even among strangers who were asked to make eye contact for two minutes there was a reported increase in connectedness, a function of oxytocin. Further, these conversations can and should involve laughter, which produces oxytocin. Additionally, listening to a funny podcast or movie can help revive this hormone during solitary periods.
- Meditation: Meditation is also a solitary pursuit that has been shown to produce higher levels of oxytocin. Chronic stress has left many in a situation where high levels of the hormone cortisol are released. Cortisol is the hormone that pushes our fight-or-flight stress response. In a chronic stress situation cortisol remains high even when there may be no immediate danger. This chronic level of stress causes weight gain, blood sugar abnormalities, inflammation, and mental health issues. Cortisol and oxytocin are like two fighters in a ring because when cortisol is high, oxytocin is held down and can’t increase. In 2013, researchers at UC Davis discovered that cortisol reduces dramatically in just a few short weeks of mindfulness meditation. Later research marked the decrease at over 50%. Embarking on a meditative journey can help increase your feelings of trust, too.
- Pick-Up The Phone: Research has demonstrated that a conversation over the phone with someone you trust yields oxytocin, which yields more trust. This effect can far outlast the phone conversation and carry on to whomever you are chatting with next. Reach out (on the phone) and touch someone!
In a world of remote work and solitary endeavors, trust is even more important though harder to come by. Oxytocin can help set us up to make trust a part of our picture and ultimately support our resilient mental health.
Nothing in this article constitutes medical advice. All medical advice should be sought from a medical professional.