Oxytocin is a hormone secreted from a pea-sized part of the brain and has long been known as a hormone that promotes feelings of love. It has even been dubbed by scientists as the “love hormone” since it is released when people cuddle up or bond socially. Even playing with your dog or hugging a friend can cause an oxytocin surge.
Oxytocin has a great reputation, because it is thought that it can make us feel better by reducing anxiety and making us feel more benevolent. An ideal example would be the relationship between mother and child, where oxytocin can play a role in emphasizing maternal instinct and impression, says Psychology Today. Additionally, the hormone is popularly prescribed as an anti-anxiety drug among youth, in products such as nasal sprays and dissolvable strips that increase its production. Even well known and credible websites, magazines and blogs such as Discover Magazine and Scientific American promote supplements that claim to help relax and reduce blood pressure and cortisol (stress) levels, increase pain thresholds, and stimulate various types of positive social interaction. Before you shop for the “cuddle” hormone to relieve stress and enhance your social life, know that new developments show that the hormone is not as cordial as it seems. On the contrary, studies imply that blocking the production of oxytocin in the brain, may be the better option.
As it turns out, the love hormone is two-faced. New research from the UC Davis institute show that oxytocin levels actually increase in perceived difficult or threatening situations. Postdoctoral researcher Duque-Wilckens says that these findings support the theory that oxytocin amplifies the effects of social experiences. “Rather than promoting positive social interactions, oxytocin amplifies the experience of both positive and negative social interactions. In a negative context, like bullying, oxytocin could promote social avoidance” says Kathleen Holder, UC Davis researcher. An insurge of the hormone can increase fear and anxiety within a person’s body. Studies on mice for example, as displayed online in the journal Biological Psychiatry, show mice going into depressive states after a small dosage of the hormone. When stressed, these mice showed a form of social anxiety, staying away from unfamiliar mice instead of approaching and initiating social connections. Blocking the activity of oxytocin shows restoration of normal social behavior.
In a more real context, social anxiety among teens is at an all time high. Social anxiety disorder or SAD, even affects 15 million adults, or 6.8% of the U.S. population and is equally common among men and women as young as 13 years old. According to a survey from Anxiety and Depression Association of America, in 2007, 36% of people with social anxiety disorder report experiencing symptoms for 10 or more years since childhood before seeking help. Studying the full effects of oxytocin can further help researchers understand and help prevent or even cure social phobias. Alicia Klages, psychology teacher at Academy of American Studies, explains that both anxiety’s cognitive (mental) and physical effects must be interpreted before it can be treated. For instance, Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is the most widely used therapy for anxiety disorders. According to the Social Anxiety Institute, CBT is a combination or a “pulling together” of methods, strategies, and techniques that work to help people successfully overcome their particular emotional problems. Research has shown it to be especially effective in the treatment of social anxiety disorder, among many other conditions. Instead of relying on artificial sources of happiness, it may suit people with social anxiety better to make changes in lifestyle; exposing yourself to people, stepping out of your comfort zone, and practicing what you fear can help acknowledge that worry.
Written by Evan Akter
Photo Courtesy of Anxiety and Depression Association of America