In our last blog we discussed the use of Ecstasy in treating people with anxiety. Other researchers have investigated the role of oxytocin, a hormone that the body produces during orgasm in men and women as well as during childbirth and breastfeeding. Interestingly, Ecstasy increases oxytocin.
So, what does this have to do with anxiety? Researchers at the University of Zurich have found that people with social phobia who were given small amounts of oxytocin in a nasal spray minutes before participating in cognitive behavioral therapy, became more confident in social situations and seemed more open to engaging in their therapy.
It’s also interesting that oxytocin levels have been found to be lower in people with autism spectrum disorders. People with autism often have difficulty relating socially. And some limited research has found that giving oxytocin to a sample of adults with autism improved their performance on a task that required identifying emotional content.
Oxytocin has been found to increase people’s ability to trust others in some studies. In other research, it has increased people’s ability to understand the emotions of others. If you think of people with social anxiety, they tend to be excessively shy and worry about how other people are judging them. Most of the time, their worries are unfounded. So, improving the ability to accurately read feelings and be able to trust others would logically decrease social anxiety.
By the way, in general, we’re not wild about most medication approaches for anxiety. Some are addictive and others not especially effective. And it’s way too early to endorse either MDMA or oxytocin as anti-anxiety strategies. However, the possibility is intriguing, especially because their use in most cases would likely be limited to serving as an adjunct to exposure therapy sessions.
On the other hand, some medications may actually decrease the effectiveness of exposure therapies. For example, Michael Otto at the Massachusetts General Hospital has found that benzodiazepines (such as valium and xanax) actually interfere with exposure.