Helping Hormones

by Mandy Wintink

I have spent a great deal of my life feeling and being independent. Perhaps I was born with some sense of it but I do think that experiences in my life reinforced it as I adopted an “I can take care of myself” or “I’ll do it all alone” mentality. In many ways, this way of living and believing did work to my benefit. I feel like I have accomplished a lot and am successful in many ways, partially as a result of that strong independence. 

Recently though, I have realized how flawed that sense of independence — that coping mechanism perhaps — actually is. Although independence does serve us, we humans actually work quite well and naturally though interdependence, as a collective and in collaboration. Actually, it’s not just us humans who work well this way, it’s our entire ecosystem that works when functioning together. Each part is necessary for its own existence.

When I look back at my life I can see quite clearly how interdependent I actually am despite a sense of independence. In the lab, for example, I had an amazing group lab mates where we all had to help each other with our experiments and our research. Without each other we could not have succeeded, literally requiring each other’s assistance. And in the many team sports that I have played, none of those wonderful games and tournaments and championships could have been won without a team effort, all striving toward a common goal with our unique and interdependent contributions to that success. And when I look at the success of my company and the courses that I run, the success is not my own. It should be attributed at least in great part to the amazing people who invested their time, energy, and money to their work and to those who have stepped up during and after to help me. It is because of them that I have the luxury of claiming success. Becoming pregnant, I have also experienced the many ways in which relying on others is not only welcomed, but often necessary. The small and large ways in which people extend help has been overwhelmingly appreciated, beautiful, and unexpected.

Even my own thinking is not independent. I rely on other people’s opinions, theories, science, ideas, critiques, and knowledge to inform my own. My mind, my brain, my self, they are all constructed through interactions with others. I am, and anything I produce, is a collective effort.

Intellectually and experientially I know that I could not survive on my own. “I can take care of myself” or “I’ll do it all alone” just doesn’t cut it. But asking for help feels uncomfortable. Doesn’t it? In fact, I know for certain that it does based on many conversations I have had, particularly with coaching clients. A good portion of them struggle in asking for help and that struggle wears them down, drains their energy, and keeps them from doing their best work possible or being their best self. 

Asking for help sucks and as a result so many of us shy away from it. I did. But this pregnancy forced me to confront my need for help. I admit, I was not prepared for how much energy it takes to make a baby. Seriously. So I have had ask for help, for the sake of my health and my baby’s. Then, while still working through the discomfort of asking for help, I was challenged with the task of launching a crowdfunding campaign to support the publication of my book, a campaign that rests entirely on the help from others and me having to ask for it, explicitly. 

I didn’t want to ask for help. Not one part of me did. Reluctantly, I submitted myself to the process and to the whim of other people’s generosity and care for my work. On the one hand, it feels like I am submitting myself, my work, and my ideas to other people’s approval. That’s hard on my ego, indeed.

But on the other hand, my ego is humbled by a greater truth. My short stint with accepting and asking for help has taught me how powerful “help” is as a tool that reminds us of our interdependence, our collective existence, and our mutual support. Helping, whether realizing we need it, asking for it, accepting it, or providing it, binds us in something that extends beyond our individual self.

So do I want you to support my book campaign? Of course. I need support. I need help. I need YOUR help! That’s why it’s called crowdfunding. But the beauty is that helping me helps you too, according to a new scientific paper about to be published in the journal Neuroscience & Biobehavioural Reviews by researchers Brown & Brown (in press). In their paper, these neuroscientists pull together several lines of research to claim that helping others serves to reduce the negative effects of prolonged stress, which effectively contributes to the helper’s well-being and longevity. The proposed mechanism for these helping-hand health benefits includes a mild release of oxytocin, a hormone also known for it’s role in “love” or “trust”, and one that accompanies caregiving. Now, much of the oxytocin-caregiving research stems from looking at maternal behaviour but there is also evidence that oxytocin is involved in general helping regardless of maternal status because it has been observed to be higher in those offering charitable donations and those who have been injected with oxytocin give more money in a game of giving. But oxytocin itself does not appear to work alone. Indeed, it has a helper of its own, another hormone: progesterone! Progesterone is often thought of as a female hormone and is known for its role in establishing and maintaining pregnancy — that’s helpful indeed! But for most of those not pregnant, it’s more interesting to know that progesterone has immune-system enhancing properties and also reduces inflammation, events that contribute to the overall well-being and longevity. And even more interesting for the men out there who think they are off the hook, it’s worth knowing that progesterone is also produced in your brain too! Together, oxytocin and progesterone seem to work together to create the benefits of helping behaviour. So that means that everyone, whether man/woman/other and pregnant or not can benefit from helping! And last really interesting point: perceived interdependence (i.e., our social bond) is likely the most effective trigger for the stress-reducing, restorative, and protective effects! Isn’t that what social media is great for?

Ok, my plea for help has been exhausted. You get it, I think: Helping me, helps you… Please and thank you!  :)

Support the campaign here: