Psychosocial stress triggers an oxytocin response in women, study finds

Socially anxious women exhibit heightened oxytocin reactivity to psychosocial stress, according to new research published in Psychoneuroendocrinology. The study provides evidence that the hormone plays a role in physiological reactions 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 socioemotional processes, which has led to its nickname the “love hormone.” But the authors of the current research have found that oxytocin is also associated with stress responses.

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

“However, over the years, 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 moving from the idea that oxytocin is some type of social elixir to an understanding that the oxytocin system is engaged in numerous social and non-social processes, including stressful situations, we hypothesized that peripheral oxytocin reactivity to psychosocial stress may be greater among socially anxious individuals.”

In the new study, 101 participants (aged 18-25) completed assessments of social anxiety and depressive symptoms online before attending a laboratory session, where 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 one female and one male actor. The speech was followed by a mental arithmetic task in which the participants were asked to count backwards from 2023 by 17. A video camera was placed in the room, and the participants were told that their performance would be recorded and judged.

To measure oxytocin levels, the 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 timespan.

The researchers found that oxytocin concentrations increased following the Trier Social Stress Test and more socially anxious participants tended to exhibit greater increases in oxytocin compared to those with lower social anxiety. However, the findings were specific to women. Male participants did not exhibit an increase in oxytocin following the test.

“This study is another example of work showing that oxytocin is not simply ‘the love hormone’ as there are numerous hormones and neurotransmitters involved in love and all psychological processes. Similarly, there are numerous biological systems 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 a heightened oxytocin response. If this work is replicated, we may find that peripheral oxytocin reactivity 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 whether we would find similar results using a non-social stressor,” Tabak explained. “In addition, 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 profiles of peripheral oxytocin reactivity to both positive and negative stimuli/situations. This type of work would further refine our ability to link individual differences in oxytocin system functioning 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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