For many, a stressful event such as a social rejection can lead to withdrawal, and reluctance to connect or be in the spotlight.
Paradoxically, a new research study suggests the best way to relieve the stress and improve mood is to reach out and actively engage others during stressful times.
Researchers at Concordia University believe oxytocin, a hormone traditionally studied for its role in childbirth and breastfeeding, and more recently for its effect on social behavior, may be the key for relieving stress after a rejection.
As published in the peer-reviewed journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, Mark Ellenbogen, Ph.D., and graduate student Christopher Cardoso show that oxytocin can increase a person’s trust in others following social rejection.
Said Ellenbogen, “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.”
Researchers used a double-blind experiment to administered either oxytocin or a placebo via a nasal spray to 100 students. The subjects were then subjected to social rejection.
In a conversation that was staged to simulate real life, researchers posing as students disagreed with, interrupted and ignored the unsuspecting participants.
Researchers then used mood and personality questionnaires to determine the feeling of people after being snubbed. Results showed that participants who were particularly distressed after being slighted reported greater trust in other people if they sniffed oxytocin prior to the event, but not if they sniffed the placebo.
In contrast, oxytocin had no effect on trust in those who were not emotionally affected by social rejection.
Cardoso says that studying oxytocin may provide future options for those who suffer from mental health conditions characterized by high levels of stress and low levels of social support, such as depression.
“If someone is feeling very distressed, oxytocin could promote social support seeking, and that may be especially helpful to those individuals,” he said, noting that people with depression tend to naturally withdraw even though reaching out to social support systems can alleviate depression and facilitate recovery.
For Ellenbogen, who holds a Canada Research Chair in Developmental Psychopathology, the contribution of stress to the development of mood disorders like depression and bipolar disorder has long been a research focus.
“I’m concerned with the biological underpinnings of stress, particularly interpersonal stress, which is thought to be a strong predictor of these mental disorders. So, oxytocin is a natural fit with my interests,” he said.
“The next phase of research will begin to study oxytocin’s effects in those who are at high risk for developing clinical depression.”
Cardoso says reactions to oxytocin seem to be more variable depending on individual differences and contextual factors than most pharmaceuticals, so learning more about how the hormone operates can help scientists to figure out how it might be used in future treatments.
“Previous studies have shown that natural oxytocin is higher in distressed people, but before this study nobody could say with certainty why that was the case,” Cardoso says, “In distressed people, oxytocin may improve one’s motivation to reach out to others for support.
“That idea is cause for a certain degree of excitement, both in the research community and for those who suffer from mood disorders.”
Source: Concordia University