Wouldn’t it be great to have an antidote to stress and anxiety? Given oxytocin’s power to reinforce feelings of safety and trust, scientists are increasingly finding it’s one of the most relevant neurochemicals for stress relief, particularly in social settings.
The oxytocin response can also prime the brain to react more calmly to future stress just by thinking of those we love, scientists say. According to researcher Phil Shaver of the University of California-Davis, the chemical release in the brain that this simple action causes acts as a stress buffer before it even occurs.
C. Sue Carter, one of the nation’s first researchers of oxytocin, has said, “People under the influence of oxytocin don’t have the same stress response that others do; bad news rolls off them more easily.”
At a 2007 meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, researchers presenting a study said that prairie voles that were separated from their siblings exhibited signs of anxiety, stress and depression that abated after they were injected with oxytocin. By contrast, Carter said, oxytocin had no measurable effects on those paired with siblings, suggesting its effects are most evident under stressful conditions.
“I was surprised the action of the peptide is so easy to detect under negative conditions,” says Carter, professor of psychiatry and co-director of The Brain Body Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Researcher Jason Yee, Ph.D. also found that oxytocin lowered anxiety in stressed animals, but only if they recovered in the presence of a “friend.” His findings, presented at Neuroscience 2010, the Society for Neuroscience’s annual meeting, suggested social contact is pivotal in oxytocin’s ability to cut stress.
Scientists have also hypothesized that oxytocin could aid those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a fear and anxiety disorder, because of the hormone’s blunting effects on the amygdala, the so-called fear center in the brain.
“It’s a really tricky thing,” says Dr. Kai MacDonald, adjunct professor of psychiatry at University of California-San Diego and an oxytocin researcher. Studies show “it depends on the kind of brain you put it in,” he says.
“For those with anxiety and trauma, it was clear . . . that they uniformly feel calmer,” MacDonald says.
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Written by Maureen Salamon. For more information contact Bryan Post, Managing Editor of Oxytocin Central firstname.lastname@example.org or call (405) 476-1983