Childhood Trauma, Oxytocin And Our Ability To Love :
We know that there is a link between childhood trauma and the subsequent experience of depression in later life.
Furthermore, it is now also known, thanks to neuroscientific research, that those who have suffered childhood trauma and have, subsequently, been diagnosed with a depressive illness are at risk of also having suffering disruption to the part of the brain’s neurobiological system which is responsible for the generation feelings of love and trust.
Oxytocin: The ‘Love Hormone’ :
More specifically, those who have suffered ongoing childhood trauma are at risk of having lower levels of the neurohormone oxytocin than average. Oxytocin is released into the brain in response to social interaction with others including affectionate physical contact (e.g being hugged, caressed, sex etc.) or through warm and loving verbal exchanges that increase emotional bonding and attachment with a trusted other.
Possible Positive Effects Of Naturally Raised Levels Of Oxytocin :
If then, due to our experience of childhood trauma, we have lower than average levels of oxytocin, it can frequently be in our interests to attempt to raise them (I list the potential benefits of doing so below) :
The possible positive effects of raising our levels of oxytocin include :
- reduced stress and anxiety
- reduced hostility
- improved relationships
- increased levels of social confidence
- decreased feelings of both emotional and physical pain
- decreased need for approval from others
- increased levels of enjoyment derived from social interactions
- decreased proneness to feel that life is not worth living
- increased levels of trust
- increased motivation to behave ‘pro-socially’
- increased psychological stability
- increased ability to relax
- increased inclination to exercise warm and loving maternal care
- increased ability to bond with one’s partner
- increased speed of wound healing
- increased generosity
- improved sleep
- increased resilience to depression
Animal Study Suggesting Anti-Depressant Effects of Oxytocin :
A study (Norman et al, 2011) involving mice with a small injury showed that those left to recover alone were more likely to develop depressive symptoms (e.g. quickly giving up on challenging tasks) than mice who were allowed to recover in pairs; the study concluded that that the paired mice were more resilient to depression because of raised levels of oxytocin-induced by the companionship of their co-recovering rodent friend.
Paradoxical Effects :
Recent research suggests that invariably identifying the release of oxytocin into the brain as a helpful biological process is an over-generalization.
This is because it has now been found that the release of the neurohormone may be paradoxical in as far as it may also sometimes have negative effects.
For example, it may exacerbate painful memories of previous, dysfunctional relationships (e.g. one study found that bad memories of one’s difficult relationship with one’s mother in early life were actually worsened by increased levels of oxytocin).
Another possible negative effect is that it may make us less accepting of those who are not part of our social group or culture (thus increasing feelings of prejudice against others).
Intensification Of Salience Of Social Interactions :
Bringing together the above information as a whole, it appears that it is too simplistic to regard the function of oxytocin as solely relevant to the accentuation of feelings associated with love.
Instead, it should be seen as relevant to how we perceive the salience of our relationships / social interactions with others – both good and bad.
Natural Ways Of Increasing Our Levels Of Oxytocin :
- social support
- interacting with friends
- being part of a sports team
- owning a dog
- just being around other people even if not directly interacting with them
Norman et al. 920110 Selective influences of oxytocin on the evaluative processing of social stimuli. J Psychopharmacol. 2011 Oct;25(10):1313-9. doi: 10.1177/0269881110367452. Epub 2010 May 24.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).