The hormone oxytocin helped stressed subjects trust in others.
Photo Credit: Concordia University

Hormone may help handle social stress


Reaching out to others after distressing social interaction is an effective way for people to feel better and a new study suggests the hormone oxytocin could help people do that. Oxytocin is a hormone usually studied for its role in childbirth and breastfeeding. More recently it is being studied for its effect on social behaviour.

People who suffer from mental health conditions characterized by high levels of stress and low levels of social support could eventually be helped by this kind of research.

100 students stressed

100 students were either given a nasal spray with oxytocin or a placebo and then they were subjected to unpleasant social situations.  The researchers posing as students disagreed with them, interrupted them or ignored their comments and points of view.

Afterwards the subjects were given questionnaires. Of those who were distressed by the social interactions, the people who had sniffed the oxytocin reported greater trust in others than did who did not get the oxytocin.

That might make them more likely to seek out social support to deal with their social rejection. “Oxytocin is like the adrenalin of social behaviour in some ways,” said Christopher Cardoso, researcher and post-doctoral student in clinical psychology at Concordia University.

20111202 Mark Ellenbogen Christopher Cardoso 011

Christopher Cardoso on the left, Mark Ellenbogen on the right studied the effect of oxytocin on people stressed by negative social interactions.

Oxytocin appears to amplify trust

“In the people who experienced very negative reaction to the social rejection, the oxytocin seemed to amplify their trust in other people which could ultimately be conducive to them seeking out social support when they are feeling stressed.” This, said Cardoso, could be an effective way of dealing with stress.

People who are depressed tend to withdraw socially. If a hormone like oxytocin could help them instead seek out support that could be a positive benefit.  “If we can identify a hormone that’s produced naturally enough, that can ultimately be involved in social support seeking maybe we can either use that molecule as a form of intervention or we can study how it works in the body and see if that maybe that system is disregulated in people who withdraw more often than not from other people in stressful situations,” said Cardoso.

Researchers will next have to find out whether the hormone has side effects and whether it changes behaviour over the long term. They want to know how oxytocin works in depressed people and whether the hormone could make their symptoms improve.

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