BACKGROUND: The presence of social support has been associated with decreased stress responsiveness. Recent animal studies suggest that the neuropeptide oxytocin is implicated both in prosocial behavior and in the central nervous control of neuroendocrine responses to stress. This study was designed to determine the effects of social support and oxytocin on cortisol, mood, and anxiety responses to psychosocial stress in humans.
METHODS: In a placebo-controlled, double-blind study, 37 healthy men were exposed to the Trier Social Stress Test. All participants were randomly assigned to receive intranasal oxytocin (24 IU) or placebo 50 min before stress, and either social support from their best friend during the preparation period or no social support.
RESULTS: Salivary free cortisol levels were suppressed by social support in response to stress. Comparisons of pre- and poststress anxiety levels revealed an anxiolytic effect of oxytocin. More importantly, the combination of oxytocin and social support exhibited the lowest cortisol concentrations as well as increased calmness and decreased anxiety during stress.
CONCLUSIONS: Oxytocin seems to enhance the buffering effect of social support on stress responsiveness. These results concur with data from animal research suggesting an important role of oxytocin as an underlying biological mechanism for stress-protective effects of positive social interactions.