Oxytocin Helps Reach Out Times Of Stress
June 26, 2013

Hormone Oxytocin Helps You Reach Out In Times Of Stress – Potential Therapy For Mood Disorders

Rebekah Eliason for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online

When faced with the pain of social rejection, many people try to hide from the situation to soothe their wounded pride. However, scientists have recently shown this may not be the most helpful strategy. According to researchers at Concordia University, reaching out to others after a stressful event instead of secluding oneself boosts levels of the hormone oxytocin which helps against feelings of rejection.

Oxytocin has been studied for its role in childbirth and breastfeeding but recently also for its effect on social behavior. Mark Ellenbogen and Christopher Cardoso, researchers in Concordia's Centre for Research in Human Development, recently found in a study that oxytocin can increase a sense of trust in a person who has recently experienced social rejection.

Ellenbogen explained, "That means that instead of the traditional 'fight or flight' response to social conflict where people get revved up to respond to a challenge or run away from it, oxytocin may promote the 'tend and befriend' response where people reach out to others for support after a stressful event. That can, in turn, strengthen social bonds and may be a healthier way to cope."

For the study, 100 participants received either a dose of oxytocin or a placebo by nasal spray after experiencing social rejection. Social rejection was simulated through conversations by researchers in which they posed as students who disagreed with, interrupted and ignored the unsuspecting participants.

People who were particularly distressed after the researchers snubbed them reported through mood questionnaires a greater trust in people if they had sniffed oxytocin beforehand than those who received the placebo. Interestingly, people who did not report an emotional effect from being snubbed did not report feeling greater trust in people after receiving a dose of oxytocin.

Cardoso, a doctoral student in Concordia’s Department of Psychology, reported studying oxytocin could lead to more options for those who suffer from mental health conditions, such as depression, which are characterized by high levels of stress and a tendency to avoid social support. "If someone is feeling very distressed, oxytocin could promote social support seeking, and that may be especially helpful to those individuals," he said, noting that people with depression tend to naturally withdraw even though reaching out to social support systems can alleviate depression and facilitate recovery.

Ellenbogen explained stress has long been a factor studied in association with mood disorders such as depression and bipolar disorder. "I'm concerned with the biological underpinnings of stress, particularly interpersonal stress, which is thought to be a strong predictor of these mental disorders. So, oxytocin is a natural fit with my interests. The next phase of research will begin to study oxytocin's effects in those who are at high risk for developing clinical depression."

Cardoso mentioned that oxytocin levels tend to vary more according to individual and contextual factors than most natural hormones. He explained "Previous studies have shown that natural oxytocin is higher in distressed people, but before this study nobody could say with certainty why that was the case. In distressed people, oxytocin may improve one's motivation to reach out to others for support. That idea is cause for a certain degree of excitement, both in the research community and for those who suffer from mood disorders."

Thir study was published recently in the peer-reviewed journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.