Psychosocial stress triggers an oxytocin response in women, the study found


Psychosocial stress triggers an oxytocin response in women, the study found

Socially anxious women show increased oxytocin reactivity to psychosocial stress, according to a new study published in psychoneuroendocrinology. The study provides evidence that the hormone plays a role in physiological responses to social 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, leading to its nickname “love hormone”. But the authors of the current research found that oxytocin is also linked to stress responses.

“I’ve been studying the human oxytocin system since I started grad school in 2005,” said study author Benjamin A. Tabak (@thesocialben), Assistant Professor at Southern Methodist University and Director of the Social and Clinical Neuroscience Lab. “When I began my work in this area, my research group assumed that we would find that oxytocin was associated with positive social and emotional outcomes.”

“Over the years, however, our work has uncovered a more complex role for oxytocin in human socioemotional 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 some kind of social elixir to the understanding that the oxytocin system is involved in numerous social and non-social processes, including stressful situations, we hypothesized that the peripheral oxytocin reactivity to psychosocial stress may be greater in socially anxious individuals.”

In the new study, 101 participants (aged 18 to 25) completed online assessments of social anxiety and depressive symptoms before participating in a laboratory session in which they underwent the Trier Social Stress Test, an experimentally verified stress-inducing scenario.

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

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

The researchers found that oxytocin levels increased after the Trier Social Stress Test, and participants with higher levels of social anxiety tended to have greater increases in oxytocin than those with lower levels of social anxiety. However, the results were specific to women. Male participants showed no increase in oxytocin after the test.

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

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

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

“Future work is needed to determine whether we would find similar results using a non-social stressor,” Tabak explained. “Moreover, since endogenous oxytocin appears to be released in the context of both positive and negative stimuli/situations, future studies would benefit from an within-subject design that examines profiles of peripheral oxytocin reactivity to both positive and negative stimuli/situations. This type of work would further refine our ability to relate individual differences in how the oxytocin system works to socioemotional outcomes and psychiatric disorders.”

The study “Social Anxiety Is Associated with Greater Peripheral Oxytocin Reactivity 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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