Hormone Oxytocin Could Relieve Distress in the Anxious and Depressed

Scientists at Concordia’s Centre for Human Development have provided evidence that rather than hiding or avoiding people due to social rejection, it is better to reach out to others for support.  Doing this positively impacts one’s mood, while avoidance generally increases their anxiety and depression, and decreases their trust in others.

Mark Ellenbogen and Christopher Cardoso, the researchers running the study, discovered that the hormone oxytocin may significantly help us in reaching out to others for support when faced with stressful social situations.

While it has been well documented that oxytocin plays a significant role in childbirth and breastfeeding, and more recently that it increases our willingness to trust strangers, it has not been studied in social rejection scenarios.  Their study concludes that that oxytocin can help increase a person’s trust in others following social rejection.

Ellenbogen explains, “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.”

The experiment was a double-blind study, in which 100 students were given either oxytocin or a placebo via a nasal spray, and then subjected to social rejection.  They were placed into conversations that were staged to simulate real life, where researchers posing as students in a classroom disagreed with, interrupted, or ignored the participants.

Using mood and personality questionnaires, the data showed that participants who were very distressed after being rejected reported greater trust in other people if they sniffed oxytocin prior to the experiment, but not if they sniffed the placebo.

Perhaps oxytocin could provide help to those with depression and anxiety, and social anxiety in particular, since socially anxious people have hard time trusting other people, and tend not to seek out social support after rejections.

Since avoidance generally just makes anxiety and depression worse, taking oxytocin via nasal spray before social encounters could seem to help relieve the stress of people with social anxiety or depression, and possibly increase their social bonding in future encounters, so they could begin to produce more of the hormone naturally in their brains.

Published 6/25/2013

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