Counselling and the Chemistry of Love

As counsellors and everyone else knows, science likes to ruin everything and the chemistry of love is no different a topic. Just like how science has ruined our space fantasies with claims that faster-than-light travel is impossible or that porcine animals can never fly. Or how scientists claim that the heart is not the seat of emotions and that the flattering in your chest is probably palpitations and you may want to get that checked.  And thus today we invite science to kill the magic and mystery of love and the psychology behind it.

You’re welcome.

What is Love?

Love according to chemistry is a hormone called oxytocin. It is a peptide hormone produced in the hypothalamus and released by the pituitary glands.  It has a role to play in the bonding aspects of human social engagement, especially childbirth and the period after when the parents meet their new child.  Its chemical formula is  C43H66N12O12S2 and its boiling point is 1,533°C.

Truly this is the stuff bards sing about.  However before you go and buy a chemistry set to whip up a love potion or some such, note that this is only part of the whole process.  While hormones do indeed have an important part to play, other aspects matter if reciprocal love is to bloom.  Like addiction.

The culprit here is Dopamine.  The feel-good chemical is secreted by the brain whenever you do, or it anticipated you are about to do something that it likes.  Note that, “what the brain likes” and “what is good for you” are mutually exclusive questions.  In caveman days this feeling helped encourage our ancestors when they found particularly delicious berries or ate the fat of hunted animals.  Nowadays however we can more easily get such a high from binge eating, drug habits and other terrible ideas.  Thus seeing a potential partner triggers Dopamine production to encourage you to get close.

As if this wasn’t enough, your brain then also conspires to turn off the amygdala – the part of the brain that lets you use logic and critical thinking and is important for feelings of anger, sadness and fear.  So high are you on this chemical cocktail that the fact her father is a dangerous Mob boss with high standards for his little princess goes completely unnoticed.

So, what can counsellors do about it?

Though it is deeply unromantic, understanding the chemical nature behind affection, romance and love is extremely helpful for psychologists and counsellors tasked with trying to resolve matters of love, whether between couples, parents and children or just families in general.  For example, the knowledge that the brain literally turns off its warning systems under the right circumstances goes a long way towards providing an explanation of, and sympathy for, why people get with unsuitable partners and how judging can help no one.

It also provides a chemical understanding of what can be done to try and achieve better and stronger bonds.  For example, by encouraging clients to undertake activities together that will produce Oxytocin in the brain.  Research has found that lots of little acts, like watching films together or getting each other a hot drink help produce a steady drip of the hormone to further cement an ongoing bond.   There’s also been some research on whether providing Oxytocin as a therapy may help with some mental health problems, though this is still in the early days.

An understanding of the chemistry that underpins love is an essential component of the tool kit that makes up the skill set of any relationship counsellor.  Along with training in teaching methods and an understanding of the psychology that these hormones produce,  this can be essential for counsellors in helping their clients to come to terms with the reality of their situation during counselling, The reality being that they’re a bag of out of control chemical reactions, seeking other bags of chemical reactions to create more bags of chemical reactions while living on a giant rock spinning around the sun every 365.24 days.

Happy Valentines!




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