A broken heart.
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Oxytocin – “the love hormone” – may increase compassion in people who isolate themselves emotionally due to post-traumatic stress disorder, according to a study conducted at the University of Haifa and Rambam Medical Center.
The hormone may boost PTSD patients’ feelings of compassion, but only toward females, thus improving their social behavior, said University of Haifa psychology Prof. Simone Shamay-Tsoory, who led the study. Her findings were published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.
Until now, several theoretical studies proposed that the oxytocinergic system functions abnormally among patients with PTSD, and that an oxytocin nasal spray may serve as an effective intervention for relieving anxiety.
But few studies examined the effects of oxytocin on empathy and compassion among these patients, according to Shamay-Tsoory, Rambam psychiatry director Prof. Ehud Klein, and Dr. Sharon Palgi, head of the psychologists’ team at the hospital’s psychiatric daycare department.
Compassion is the pro-social motivation to help others who are in distress. It is an outcome of emotional empathy (the ability to recognize the feelings of others) and of cognitive empathy (the ability to understand what another person feels and thinks).
The study included 32 patients with PTSD and a control group of 30 healthy subjects with no history of psychiatric disorders. All participants were randomly assigned to groups for the first administration of either oxytocin or a placebo. One week later, each participant switched to either oxytocin or the placebo. Some 45 minutes after receiving the treatment, the participants listened to two random stories, one from a male and the other a female, describing a distressful emotional conflict.
The participants were then asked to provide compassionate advice. The compassion degrees in the participants’ responses to the stories were analyzed by two psychologists who didn’t know whether the patient had been given oxytocin or a placebo.
The study found that a single intranasal dose of oxytocin enhances compassion, both in patients with PTSD and in healthy participants – but only toward women. The spray treatment did not affect compassion toward men.
From an evolutionary perspective, oxytocin moderates social behaviors, including compassion, toward the survival of weaker and vulnerable members of society, including pregnant females and children, who cannot readily defend themselves in nature.
The study showed that patients with PTSD displayed less compassion (the average compassion score of PTSD patients was 3.39, while that of the healthy participants was 5.05). Furthermore, they were less talkative (the average length of responses PTSD patients was 31 words compared to healthy participants’ 47 words). The findings suggest that PTSD patients suffer from a comprehensive deficit in compassion.
“The difficulty in the ability to feel compassion may be due to problems in the ability to identify, understand and empathize with the other’s state of distress. These difficulties may relate to social problems that characterize patients with PTSD,” said the researchers.
This finding led the researchers to posit it may be possible to use oxytocin as a psychobiological treatment option in couple therapy to increase communication, particularly among couples where the husband suffers from PTSD. Such a treatment could improve the quality of the couple’s marriage, which is often impaired by the disorder.