Intranasal oxytocin enhances stress-protective effects of social support in women with negative childhood experiences during a virtual Trier Social Stress Test

M. M.E. Riem*, L. E. Kunst, M. H.J. Bekker, M. Fallon, N. Kupper

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticle


Oxytocin is considered a biological mechanism underlying stress-protective effects of positive social interactions. It is assumed to underlie the women-specific tend-and-befriend response to stress, although few studies have tested this assertion with female samples. The aim of the present study was, therefore, to test whether oxytocin enhances stress-protective effects of social support during stress in women, taking into account the moderating role of childhood adversity. The sample consisted of 180 female undergraduate students who had reported on experiences of childhood abuse and how often their mother used love withdrawal as an insensitive disciplinary strategy. Women participated in a virtual version of the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST) and were randomly assigned to receive 24 IU oxytocin or a placebo and to receive support or no support from a female friend (sub-groups N = 45). Results showed that oxytocin reduced heart rate variability during the TSST in participants who received support, possibly indicating that oxytocin increases attention and stimulates a challenge motivational state in the presence of a friend. In addition, we found that, in the presence of a friend, oxytocin reduced state anxiety levels and cortisol levels after the TSST, but only in women with higher levels of adverse childhood experiences. Our findings may indicate that oxytocin is a neurobiological means to attain and benefit from social support under stressful circumstances, which may be particularly adaptive for women with a history of adversity. Thus, oxytocin may function as motivator for affiliative disposition during stress exposure in women with a history of childhood adversity. Results should be replicated in clinical samples.

Original languageEnglish
Article number104482
Pages (from-to)1-9
Number of pages9
Early online date19 Oct 2019
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2020



  • Childhood trauma
  • Oxytocin
  • Psychosocial stress
  • Support
  • Support seeking

Cite this