Psychosocial stress triggers oxytocin response in women, study finds

According to a new study published in Psychoneuroendocrinology. The study provides evidence that the hormone plays a role in physiological responses to socially stressful situations.

Oxytocin is a hormone produced by the hypothalamus and secreted by the pituitary gland. It plays a key role in several socio-emotional processes, which has earned it its nickname, the “love hormone”. But the authors of the current research found that oxytocin is also associated with stress responses.

“I have been studying the human oxytocin system since I started graduate school in 2005,” said study author Benjamin A. Tabak (@thesocialben), assistant professor at Southern Methodist University and director of the Social and Clinical Neurosciences Laboratory. “When I started my work in this area, my research group assumed that we would find that oxytocin was associated with positive social and emotional outcomes.”

“However, over the years, our work has revealed a more complex role of oxytocin in human socio-emotional processes and psychopathology (Tabak et al., 2011; Tabak et al., 2016; Tabak et al., 2021) Based on a gradual paradigm shift from the idea that oxytocin is a type of social elixir to an understanding that the oxytocin system is engaged in many social and non-social processes, including including stressful situations, we hypothesized that the peripheral responsiveness of oxytocin to psychosocial stress might be greater in socially anxious people.

In the new study, 101 participants (aged 18 to 25) completed online social anxiety and depressive symptom assessments before attending a lab session, where they underwent the social stress test of Trier, an experimentally verified stress-inducing scenario.

The test asked participants to prepare and deliver a five-minute speech in front of a female actor and a male actor. The speech was followed by a mental arithmetic task in which participants were asked to count backwards from 2023 by 17. A video camera was placed in the room and participants were told that their performance would be recorded and judged.

To measure oxytocin levels, participants provided a baseline blood sample approximately 1 minute before receiving instructions for the Trier Social Stress Test. After completing the test, they provided 4 more blood samples over a 30 minute period.

The researchers found that oxytocin concentrations increased after the Trier social stress test and that participants with higher social anxiety tended to show larger increases in oxytocin compared to those with lower social anxiety. . However, the results were specific to women. Male participants did not show an increase in oxytocin after the test.

“This study is another working example showing that oxytocin is not just the ‘love hormone’ as there are many hormones and neurotransmitters involved in love and all psychological processes. Similarly, there are many biological systems involved in stress responses,” Tabak told PsyPost.

“Our study shows that people, and especially women, who are particularly sensitive to social stress – socially anxious people – may have an increased response to oxytocin. If this work is replicated, we might find that peripheral reactivity of oxytocin to stress, or certain types of stress, represents a biomarker of social anxiety.

But the researchers noted that there is still much to learn about the relationship between oxytocin and neuropsychological processes.

“Future work is needed to determine if we would find similar results using a non-social stressor,” Tabak explained. “Furthermore, since endogenous oxytocin appears to be released in the context of both positive and negative stimuli/situations, future studies would benefit from a within-subjects design examining peripheral oxytocin responsiveness profiles to stimuli/situations. positives and negatives.This type of work would further refine our ability to link individual differences in oxytocin system functioning to socio-emotional outcomes and psychiatric disorders.

The study, “Social anxiety is associated with greater peripheral oxytocin responsiveness to psychosocial stress,” was authored by Benjamin A. Tabak, David Rosenfield, Cecile S. Sunahara, Talha Alvi, Angela Szeto, and Armando J. Mendez.


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