Therapists have long known that people who've had a traumatic experience feel the need to talk about what they've been through. This process is called 'social sharing' and can take place for days, weeks, months or years after the event.
Typically, social sharing involves 'just the facts' of what happened; emotions and feelings are shared to a much lesser extent. But sharing 'just the facts' of what happened doesn't help make people feel better. What really makes the difference is the 'social sharing of emotions' (SSE).
SSE, like the neuropeptide oxytocin (OT) - known variously as 'the hug hormone', 'the moral molecule' and 'the natural love drug' - has a calming and bonding function in humans. So a team of researchers decided to examine whether it followed that administering oxytocin might ease this therapeutic and powerful 'social sharing of emotions'. Their study, published in the recent issue of the International Journal of Psychology, is the first to investigate the biology of emotional sharing.
The researchers took 60 adult men and asked them questions about their various personal characteristics. They then gave them a dose of placebo or OT and made them wait for 45 minutes while watching a movie featuring friendship and camaraderie. They were then asked to recall a past negative experience that still currently affects them, and rate its emotional intensity at the time. Participants then described the event on paper, and rated their current negative emotional intensity; they also had to indicate whether they would agree to share the related facts and emotions with another person.
Two judges analysed the responses. What they found was that OT did not make people more talkative - the word counts in the letters were the same - but it did increase the participants' willingness to share the specific component that is responsible for the therapeutic effects of social sharing: emotions. As the researchers note, "the findings are the more remarkable because they were obtained among men, who may be less inclined than women to express their emotions."
This ground-breaking study paves the way for further research in several new directions:
The first would benefit patients who find it difficult to express their emotions, such as military veterans, who also have high rates of trauma.
The second has implications for the prevention of trauma: one of the key elements distinguishing those who get post-traumatic stress disorder from those who do not is that the former tend to keep a small part of their experience secret. If OT could help them to share these hidden emotions, rather than just the facts, it might help them to heal.
Finally, there may be further implications for human health, related to OT's antagonistic effect on the stress hormone cortisol and its now proven encouragement of health-giving social sharing.