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Sharing Your Problems With Others Helps Boost "Feel-Good" Chemicals in the Brain

Update Date: Jun 25, 2013 04:18 PM EDT

If you've got a problem, talk about it. Scientists found that sharing your problems in times of stress really can help improve mood because if produces the "feel-good" hormone oxytocin.

Previous research on oxytocin has mainly focused on the hormone's role in childbirth and breastfeeding. However, Canadian researchers at Concordia University are now taking a closer look at how oxytocin affects social behavior

The latest findings reveal that oxytocin can increase a person's trust in others following social rejection.

Researcher Mark Ellenbogen explains that oxytocin may promote the "tend to befriend" response where people reach out to others for support after a stressful event.

"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," Ellenbogen said in a news release.

"That can, in turn, strengthen social bonds and may be a healthier way to cope," he added.

The latest study included 100 students who were given a dose of either oxytocin or a placebo via nasal spray. The students were then subjected to social rejection. In a conversation that was staged to simulate real life, researchers acting as students disagreed with, interrupted and ignored the unsuspecting participants.

Afterwards, the participants were asked to fill out mood and personality questionnaires. Researchers found that participants who were particularly distressed after being rejected reported greater trust in other people if they were given oxytocin before the conversation, but not if they were given the placebo.

However, researchers found that oxytocin had no effect on trust in those who were not emotionally affected by social rejection.

Researchers said that investigating the effects of oxytocin might provide future options for those who suffer from mental health conditions characterized by high levels of stress and low levels of social support, like depression.

"If someone is feeling very distressed, oxytocin could promote social support seeking, and that may be especially helpful to those individuals," co-researcher Christopher Cardoso said in a news release.

He explained that people with depression tend to naturally withdraw even though reaching out to social support systems can help lighten depression and facilitate recovery.

Researchers said the next step is to study oxytocin's effects in those who are at high risk for developing clinical depression.

However, researchers note that reactions to the hormone seem to be more variable depending on individual differences and contextual factors than most drugs. Therefore learning more about how the hormone operates can help researchers 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 explained. "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."

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