The dark side of Oxytocin.

Oxytocin has typically been considered the love hormone. Historically, It has been thought to promote connection and social bonding. However in a new study done at Northwestern University, a new side of Oxytocin was discovered. “Oxytocin appears to be the reason social situations, perhaps being bullied at school or tormented by a boss, reverberate long past the event and can trigger fear or anxiety in the future. That’s because the hormone actually strengthens social memory in one specific region of the brain. If a social experience is negative or stressful, the hormone activates a part of the brain that intensifies the memory. Oxytocin also increases the susceptibility to feeling fearful and anxious during stressful events going forward. The scientists discovered that oxytocin strengthens negative social memory and future anxiety by triggering an important signaling molecule, ERK. This molecule becomes activated for 6 hours after the negative social experience. ERK causes enhanced fear, by stimulating the fear pathways,” states, Jelena Radulovic, the senior author of the study at the Feinberg school of medicine at Northwestern.

The fact that a period of time can be specified in which one stays triggered in fear and anxiety is very interesting to me. In my work with couples, a partner may stay angry or upset for many hours after a fight or disagreement. It is important to be aware of the neurological or chemical aspect that is functioning and to do our best to teach that person how to calm themselves down and or communicate with their partner about what is going on internally.

In the past it was thought that oxytocin reduces fear rather than enhances it, so the results of this study were surprising. Presumably, oxytocin also intensifies positive social memories and thereby increases feelings of well being, but that research is ongoing. The findings are important because “chronic social stress is one of the leading causes of anxiety and depression, while positive social interactions enhance emotional health.” I found this to be particularly compelling because oxytocin comes up often in discussion of love and sex. How interesting it is that a hormone that was thought to trigger just one response may trigger both. I often tell patients that sex is most often not like it is in the movies. It is often a combination of many feelings and associations both good and bad. I try to help people feel more comfortable with the myriad of experiences and feelings they have had around intimacy and sexuality. I believe the neurochemical and hormonal aspects are important because they may be powerfully triggering and altering a person’s experience. Patients often want sex to be spontaneous and effortless, I feel changing a pattern is just the opposite and perhaps this is part of why that is.

I often educate couples on creating positive communication and sexual patterns. It takes work and commitment. Our bodies and brains retain powerful chemical memories and creating new pathways and experiences must be a conscious choice. I have seen people create new healing experiences for themselves. It does take time and commitment, but if you stick with us we will get you to where you want to be!