The empathy expressed by many people in my circle via containers of soup, lifts, visits, hugs and sincerely penned notes were the only upsides to eight months of what Zuckerberg would call “not good moments.”
Their acts had a physical impact on me. The science of empathy is still young, but what we know is that to influence someone else’s emotional state, hormones are key. Oxytocin is released when we make eye contact and reach out to someone in person, according to neuroscience research. A hug, a pat on the arm – even just a handshake – is enough to release this neuropeptide, which tamps down stress, kills pain and fosters tissue repair. Supportive contact releases what has been dubbed “the cuddle chemical” because all mammals, but especially mothers and babies, secrete it when they’re close enough to nurture and be nurtured.