Among the symptoms that individuals suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) feel are social isolation, depression, feelings of hopelessness and despair — and an inability to empathize with others, showing no compassion for those in pain, physical or otherwise.
But there may be hope for patients suffering from the disease — a dose of the “love drug” known as Oxytocin, a hormone that researchers are increasingly looking at as a treatment for a number of maladies, including PTSD and autism.
Research on how Oxytocin can be used to relieve the psychological stress of PTSD patients, by helping to modify their social behavior, is being conducted at the University of Haifa, and a first-ever study of its kind shows that such treatment indeed offers a great deal of promise. “Our study found that Oxytocin may improve compassion towards women among PTSD patients,” said Professor Simone Shamay-Tsoory from the department of psychology at the Haifa University. Based on the research she is leading, there is “new evidence that Oxytocin may be able to improve the social behavior of PTSD sufferers.”
PTSD is most closely associated in the public mind with war veterans who have undergone truly traumatic experiences, watching buddies die in battle or living through gut-wrenching combat. But you don’t have to be a soldier to get PTSD; survivors of natural disasters, terrorist incidents, serious accidents, as well as victims of physical or sexual assault (in adulthood or childhood) are all candidates for ongoing post-traumatic distress, which leaves sufferers emotionally scarred, and often emotionally empty.
That emptiness often expresses itself as an inability to empathize, and a failure to feel compassion for others. Researchers are not sure about the psychological mechanism that sets off this response, but studies suggest that many PTSD sufferers who display a lack of compassion do not feel in control of their lives — buffeted about by events that they feel they cannot cope with, which can lead to a general lack of caring about themselves, their fate, and the fate of others.
Oxytocin is a hormone produced in the brain’s hypothalamus and stored in the pituitary gland, from which it is released during significant human “bonding” events, such as during childbirth or breastfeeding in females. Research has shown that Oxytocin is the hormonal cause of a mother’s adoration of her newborn, and an important motivator for 3 a.m. feedings of infants.
The role of Oxytocin in men is less clear, but researchers have established that doses of it are released during sex, especially during ejaculation. Higher levels of the hormone have been observed among both men and women in the first months of a mutual relationship, and studies have also shown that children get a dose when they hug their moms. Meanwhile, a 2010 study showed that children diagnosed with autism developed improved social skills when they were given a dose of Oxytocin to inhale. It has even been observed as playing a role in situations where a tight-knit group is threatened, such as when a unit of soldiers is under attack.
Thus Oxytocin’s well-deserved reputation as the “love drug,” also known as the “hug hormone,” and the developing theory among numerous researchers that sufferers of PTSD — whose ability to feel or to give love and affection is impaired, and whose social skills in general have been damaged — could be helped by a dose of the hormone.
To test the efficacy of the theory, participants in the Haifa University study were provided with doses of inhalable Oxytocin and placebos to measure their compassion levels. Participants were randomly chosen to receive either the hormone or the placebo in one of two sessions, with each group receiving one or the other over the two weeks of the study.
Forty-five minutes after their dose was administered, participants were asked to listen to two randomly chosen different stories with characters (one story featured a male, the second a female) describing stressful emotional conflicts. Then, they were asked to provide advice to the protagonists. The levels of compassion displayed by participants (based on a compassion response scale commonly used by psychologists) were analyzed by two psychologists who didn’t know whether the patient had been administered Oxytocin or the placebo.
The results showed that patients with post-traumatic stress disorder showed less compassion for others, but that their compassion level was enhanced by doses of Oxytocin, as were their social skills. The study showed that the average compassion score for PTSD patients was 3.39, while that of the healthy participants was 5.05. PTSD patients were also less talkative, with the average length of their responses about 31 words, while healthy participants responded to comments or questions with an average of 47 words. The “spread” in participants’ compassion levels for placebo doses versus Oxytocin doses was about a point, and about 7-10 words, with higher compassion and better social skills displayed when the hormone was administered.
Interestingly, the enhanced compassion for both the PTSD patients and non-sufferers (and for the men and women among them) was directed towards the female character — not the male. From an evolutionary perspective, the study claimed, one of the roles of Oxytocin is to moderate pro-social behavior, including compassion, mainly toward the survival of those perceived to be more vulnerable. That, Shamay-Tsoory said, would likely extend to other vulnerable groups. “If we had included stories of children in distress, we would have probably seen even greater levels of compassion induced by the Oxytocin, since children are perceived to be even more vulnerable than females,” the researchers said.
While far from conclusive, the study shows that there is a great deal of promise in Oxytocin treatments for PTSD sufferers — and for their wives, said Shamay-Tsoory. “Until now, several theoretical studies proposed that Oxytocinergic system functions abnormally among patients with PTSD and that intranasal Oxytocin treatments may potentially serve as an effective pharmacological intervention for ameliorating symptoms of PTSD, but very few studies have examined the effects of Oxytocin administration among these patients. To the best of our knowledge the effects of Oxytocin on empathy and compassion among patients with PTSD have never been assessed. For this reason, the findings of the present study are both significant and innovative,” according to the professor and her team.
Originally posted on Times of Israel