Oxytocin: All you need to know about the love hormone

06 February,2023 09:24 AM IST |  Mumbai  |  Maitrai Agarwal

Known as the love hormone, oxytocin shapes myriad social behaviours. Expert outlines its impact on our relationships, and dating life

Representational images. Pic/iStock

February is said to be the month of love - a concept which continues to be exploited and debated upon. While the capitalists and romantics paint an artful picture, those scientifically inclined argue it to be nothing more than a chemical reaction. We have all heard of the dopamine, and serotonin rush, however, oxytocin is another relatively unknown hormone that is at play.

While not much is known about oxytocin - a hormone associated with behaviour patterns and pleasure, it is a fascinating prospect. Vishwa Modi, psychotherapist and neuropsychologist at The Mood Space, explained, "Oxytocin is a peptide hormone produced in the hypothalamus (an area of the brain that manages body temperature, hunger and thirst, mood, sex drive, blood pressure and sleep) and released by the pituitary gland. Animal studies have shown that oxytocin is important in protective aggressiveness, social behaviours, and pair bonding between mating pairs. Moreover, human research has validated oxytocin*s significance as a social hormone, influencing various social behaviours involved in attachment formation."

The impact of oxytocin on our love lives is extensive, to understand which, we posed numerous questions to the psychology expert, who answers and clears the air around oxytocin below.

Why is oxytocin known as the love hormone?
Oxytocin is related with trust, sexual desire, and relationship formation, hence it is also known as the ‘love hormone* or the ‘cuddle chemical*. Since oxytocin is a love chemical, it also plays a key role in protection of a loved one. The next time you feel possessive, remember that it is your oxytocin in action.

How is it different from serotonin and dopamine - the other happy hormones?
Serotonin (a.k.a the mood stabiliser) plays an important role in mood (closely associated with depression and anxiety), memory, libido levels, sleep and bone health.

Dopamine (the feel-good) on the other hand, its key role is reward systems, memory, learning, movement and motivation to do something when we are feeling pleasure.

Endorphins (pain-reliever) are neurotransmitters that are released by the brain to alleviate pain and promote pleasure. They play an important role in reduced pain and discomfort, better mood and self-esteem, and increased pleasure.

Oxytocin plays an important role to induce labour and milk ejection in women, reproduction, sexual excitement, social memory and recognition, social bond and parental behaviour, anxiety in social context, and love and trust.

While the functions of neurochemicals may overlap, each of these differ in their shape, size, composition, produced in different areas of the brain and belong to different neurotransmitter categories.

What role does oxytocin play in our romantic relationships?
Oxytocin, which boosts your mood and helps you feel more ‘connected* to your partner, is especially vital for pair bonding and sustaining a healthy connection, such as in romantic partnerships. The hormone was associated with the couples* interactive reciprocity, which included social attention, positive affect, loving interaction, and synchronised relational emotions, as well as anxiety and worries about the partner and the relationship. Oxytocin levels have a direct impact on recognising emotions facilitating empathic communication to be more attuned to yourself and your partner*s needs.

In case of existing relationships, oxytocin predicts interactive reciprocity regardless of sex, relationship length, or the partner*s hormones and induces love and stronger, stable ties. According to research, oxytocin is also associated with the longevity of a relationship as high levels of oxytocin promote stability in relationships. The hormone is also suggested to help you ‘get in the mood* so promoting sexual desire and orgasms.

We often talk about the "honeymoon period" in the initial stages of relationships which often prevents us from seeing or ignoring red flags. How does this oxytocin high impact our pursuit of relationships, and dating life?
While oxytocin levels have an effect on relationship length, it is vital to highlight that it also amplifies the linkage of bad memories. If you have previously been in an unhealthy relationship, creating strong attachments in new relationships may be difficult. Oxytocin brings back painful emotional and social memories, making us more cautious in new connections Determining stability in a relationship is a complex interplay between dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, and oxytocin -neurotransmitters responsible for the sensations associated with the "honeymoon phase," such as yearning, desire, obsessive thinking, and increased energy for one*s partner

A study used a self-report questionnaire to assess adult romantic attachment and discovered that the greater the oxytocin levels, the higher the anxiety scale score which explains the protectiveness nature of this chemical. This is often seen during the early phases of a relationship where the fear of loss specifically with romantic relationships might be much higher during the initial stages till one develops a secure and stable bond with their partner.

How can it impact our emotions and behaviours?
As a chemical messenger oxytocin plays an important role in sexual arousal, recognition, trust, romantic attachment and mother-infant bonding. Recent work by behavioural neuroscientists Natalia Duque-Wilckens and Brian Trainor shows that after negative social interactions, oxytocin promotes avoidance of unfamiliar social situations.

In a pleasant setting, such as with family or friends, oxytocin may encourage social approach behaviour (thus the nickname "cuddling" hormone). In a difficult situation, such as bullying, oxytocin may increase social avoidance.

In individuals with a fully developed neural system, oxytocin has a strong ability to positively modify sociality deficits and cognitive flexibility. The hormone increases openness to sharing feelings, and contributes to maintaining fidelity and the ability to create bonds between animals and between human beings.

Oxytocin has the ability to influence our emotional reactions and pro-social behaviours such as trust, empathy, gaze, happy memories, bonding cue processing, and positive communication. The hormone increases intrinsic social reasoning skills, resulting in emotional oversensitivity, which can be harmful in those who do not have major social impairments

Why does it affect males and females differently?
The term oxytocin is derived from the Greek phrase for "quick birth." Oxytocin is primarily recognised for its functions in female reproduction. It is secreted in high amounts during delivery and following nipple stimulation. It facilitates labour and nursing. One of the earliest applications of oxytocin as a pharmaceutical is as a labour and delivery aid.

While it appears to facilitate both salience and motivational aspects of social cues in both sexes, behavioural studies have reported that whereas oxytocin tends to facilitate positive social judgments, social approach, kinship recognition, and altruism in women, in men it can facilitate negative social judgments, social avoidance, competitor recognition, and selfishness.

Are there any negatives associated with oxytocin?
When a bad or traumatic social event occurs, the hormone stimulates a portion of the brain that enhances recall. In the future, oxytocin raises the likelihood of feeling afraid and worried during stressful experiences. In simple words, oxytocin strengthens bad memories.

Research has observed that oxytocin enhances negative social memory and future worry by activating a key signalling molecule for six hours following a negative social encounter. Oxytocin is linked to ties formed by persons who have similar features. This can lead to prejudice against people who are different from you, which can lead to social biases.

Also Read: Experts delve into single shaming & why Indian women are choosing to be single

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