Oxytocin is called the “love hormone” because its main role is essentially to strengthen social ties and bring couples closer together. So whenever you embrace someone you love, oxytocin levels drive up.
It’s a naturally occurring hormone that along with dopamine and norepinephrine assists in creating bonds between people — but can also make you feel better in other aspects of life. For quite some time now, researchers have tapped into oxytocin’s ability to treat certain psychological or anxiety issues, such as schizophrenia and autism. Oxytocin has also been shown to be beneficial in reducing pain, healing wounds, preventing obesity, and reducing stress. Overall, the “trust me drug” sounds like a pretty great hormone, but now researchers have found that high levels of oxytocin can actually cause oversensitivity to emotions.
In a study published in Emotion, a journal of the American Psychological Association, PhD candidates Christopher Cardoso and Anne-Marie Linnen found that healthy young adults who had too much oxytocin in their systems were actually overly sensitive to other people’s emotions. With the help of psychology professor Mark Ellenbogen, the study authors reviewed 82 young adults who were overall healthy and did not have any psychological disorders like schizophrenia.
Half were given oxytocin doses, while the other half were given a placebo. They were then asked to complete a test where they compared various facial expressions. "We saw that oxytocin made people see more emotion in the faces, which is consistent with a lot of research saying that oxytocin kind of enhances the perception of emotion in people," Christopher Cardoso, a PhD candidate and an author of the study, said in a video. Indeed, among healthy adults who have no oxytocin deficit and do not struggle with autism or schizophrenia, it was possible to have an “overdose” of the hormone.
Cardoso believes that oxytocin is certainly useful for people who have deficits, but that its use should be curbed among others. “For some, typical situations like dinner parties or job interviews can be a source of major social anxiety,” Cardoso said in a press release. “Many psychologists initially thought that oxytocin could be an easy fix in overcoming these worries. Our study proves that the hormone ramps up innate social reasoning skills, resulting in an emotional oversensitivity that can be detrimental in those who don’t have any serious social deficiencies,” he said.
“People need to temper their enthusiasm for oxytocin with respect to how it could benefit us socially,” Cardoso said in the video. “We have to ask ourselves, if we’re not [producing that much oxytocin] naturally, maybe revving up that system isn’t necessarily in our best interest.”