how your brain impacts your emotions and relationships

In episode 105, Ute, Debra, and Maria of CreatingWE Institute talk about two key hormones and how important brain science is in relationships.

When I went back and listened to the episode. I realized that we talked about cortisol and oxytocin being two main hormones that affect our relationships but failed to define them clearly!

The Big Three Hormones

Oxytocin is a hormone responsible for feelings of love and closeness. We can get it from other people or from animals.

Cortisol is a hormone for regulating the body’s metabolism, immune response, and stress response.

When you feel a bond with someone, oxytocin plays a role. On the other hand, cortisol is more likely to make you feel tense. Your blood pressure may jump and you are likely to be in fighting or defensive mode.

Dopamine is responsible for reward and reinforcement so if you think, that feels good, let’s do it again, we can attribute this to dopamine. It causes euphoria and addiction. And we all know that we can be addicted to things or attached to people that make us stronger and things that hurt us.

Debra briefly mentioned polyvagal theory, which has to do with the vagus nerve, the nerve that connects our brain and gut and manages relaxation.

There are so many parts of the brain that are engaged in our emotions and relationships. I’m not going to catalog them all here as some of you may fall asleep but you can look them up if you want more information. I’ve outlined some of the genes, nerves, and hormones that are involved. It’s really about balance and remembering that the body is a system. The balance of oxytocin and cortisol that Debra mentions applies to the other parts of the body too:

So yes, we always have oxytocin and cortisol running through our bodies. And then the question is what’s the relative balance. When there is a situation, like we get that oh my goodness, feel a little threatened or stressed, we get a cortisol burst. When we get that, then there’s a whole bio cascade of things through the body that is going to have a little bit of that jump, but it’s never like only one or the other. It’s always that relative balance.

The Balance of Circuits in the Brain

When you think of revenge, is that a positive or negative emotion? Does it strengthen or harm your relationships? I found it interesting to note that the desire for revenge activates the reward circuit. I think most of us would associate a reward with a positive thing. So again, does that make revenge good? Or is it bad?

The relative balance shows up again and again. When you love someone, compassion and empathy circuits get activated, rather than the reward circuit. We may see people with rose-tinted glasses or we may be in the honeymoon phase in a new job, this is because we’re less judgemental of people we love. This brings us back to the idea of whether or not love is an element of work relationships, which we discussed in episode 105 as well.

However you want to define love, one thing scientists have found is that the love circuit calms down the fear circuit. This reminds me of David Stone in episode 49 when he says that love is the opposite of fear:

Real fearlessness embraces vulnerability. I don’t know what might happen, but whatever it is, I’ll be able to handle it. Not that I will be victorious and defeat anything because courageous involves defeating something else. It’s not a war and love and joy are the opposite of fear. Fear is a lack of love. Fear says something bad is going to happen to me. Love says nothing bad can possibly happen to me.

The Just Right Balance of Hormones

image showing the impact of dopamine and oxytocin
The impact of the hormones dopamine and oxytocin on relationships. (Source)

Interestingly, while we might consider dopamine and oxytocin to be good hormones, they are great examples of why too much of a good thing may no longer be good. We want to have the “right” balance of dopamine and oxytocin. When that happens, we experience attraction, lust, attachment. When there is an imbalance, our actions become irrational and may lead to jealousy and adultery.

Brain science is fascinating because it’s still emerging science. The key is that the brain can grow and change into adulthood, really until we die. Heather highlights how brain science affects our ability to connect and be productive in the workplace.

So we covered the brain science module in that our team members’ brains can be in fight, flight or freeze, fear, which by the way, with what’s going on in the world right now, there’s a lot of triggers for that throughout response. Or they can be in productivity which is great for getting things done, but it won’t help you innovate, collaborate, problem, solve, et cetera.

You can trigger their reward response, which has them being more creative, more energized, connecting, collaborating, problem solving. And he goes, I never really got that there was science behind this, that part of why I might do recognition is to move someone’s brain from fight, flight or freeze or from productivity mode into the reward response so they can actually do the innovation and offer innovative ideas that would help our engineering team. He goes you finally help me understand why recognition and positive, reinforcing feedback are two of the most important tools I have as a leader.

The Brain and Learning

Did you know that people learn better when they are experiencing positive emotions? Heather talks about fight, flight or freeze, productivity mode, and reward response as different modes that we can be in, modes that our brain controls.

Fight, Flight, Freeze

You may be familiar with fight, flight, or freeze. We refer to this in everyday language when we say things like “scared shitless”, referring to when someone loses control of their bowels as a fear response. Adrenaline rushes through the body and it gets rid of extra weight through the body’s natural elimination processes. The breath and heart rate increase and your muscles get ready for motion. It might seem counterintuitive, but freeze is one of the responses in this type of situation as well as fight or flight.

Someone who is afraid of a boss, a parent, a partner will experience this elevated adrenalin and will not be able to be themselves. At that moment, it’s about survival. The other reaction that Heather didn’t mention is fawn, where the person will try to please the one triggering the fear. All of these responses are a form of self-protection, even though it may not seem that way.


Heather also mentioned brain research and productivity. In my research, I found that having schedules and focusing on a task are great for productivity whether you’re working alone or with others. The best thing you could do is to get rid of distractions such as notifications and other interruptions to be productive. This may mean clear communication at work and setting up indicators that you can’t be disturbed, e.g. setting a deep work status on your office door or in Slack.


For creativity, we can actually build it. I’m not saying that we can all be the next Kehinde Wiley. However, brainstorming and engaging in play and acting with another person could flex your creativity muscle.

The key here is that knowing a bit of neuroscience and how you respond can help you figure out where you want to set your intentions and attention. In particular, to create a more positive mindset where you can connect with others, you can practice self-care, mindfulness and be more playful. All of these regulate your hormones and increase your mood.

Building Resilence

And as the next level, you could increase your resilience. Here are three ways to do that:

  • get uncomfortable for an hour a week, i.e. do something stressful that is the good kind of stress, so sit on the floor in a way that’s uncomfortable, relish a hard workout, take a cold shower
  • slow down and breathe, for example alternate-nostril breathing or box breathing
  • Try out some new hobbies where you know you’ll fail along the way, e.g. learning a new language which will tax your memory, learn a different way of swimming, try salsa or ballroom dancing, whichever one is new to you.

If you’re in a situation where you need to calm down

  • make your exhale longer than your inhale rather than slowing down your breath
  • At the end of your inhale, take one more sip of air before you exhale out all the air through your mouth

To make it even better, you can get your body used to increase adrenalin using stress inoculation. If you’ve heard of Wim Hof, this is also what is involved in the Wim Hoff method. You can listen directly from the Huberman Lab:

You can connect with Damianne on the Changes BIG and small website, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube. You’re also invited to join the Changes BIG and small Facebook community.

Similar Episodes

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  • Left prefrontal cortext – loving kindness and compassion activate the vagus nerve
  • Vagus nerve activation – relaxation response
  • Pituary glan – releases oxytocin (cuddle hormone which makes body relax, boosts immune and cardiovascular health, reduces blood pressure, lets you build trust and connection)
  • dopamine – reward and reinforcement to cause euphoria and addiction
  • Oxytocin/vasopressin – strengthens emotional ties, enhances trust – Prozac and Viagra influence oxytocin
  • AVPR1A gene associated with pair bonding and relationship quality (related to vasopressin receptor)
  • Cortisol rises and other activity declines, body gets tense, blood pressure jumps –> hate
  • Amygdala – triggers circuits for fear and vigilance –> fight or flight wheren there is an actual threat (can lead to anger or fear –> desire for revenge)
  • Testosterone – increases sex drive
  • Hormones estrogen and androgens relate to sex drive (lust). After orgasm, vasopressin rises in men; oxytocin rises in women.
  • Dopamine and norepinephrine and low levels of serotonin for attraction (Passion, infatuation)
  • Neuropeptides oxytocin and vasopressin for attachment
  • Serotonin in low levels for romantic attraction


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I'm a curious problem solver.

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