Study Finds Hormonal Differences in Current Stressful Situations for Young Girls Who Were Abused Early in Life

leslieseltzerLeslie Seltzer, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is the lead author of a study that finds that girls who were abused as children do not produce the stress hormone cortisol at the same rate as other girls when confronted with a stressful situation. In fact, when confronted with stress, girls who were abused earlier in life produce higher levels of oxytocin, commonly referred to as the “cuddle chemical.”

In a laboratory experiment, girls were placed in a stressful situation and asked to solve mathematical problem in front of a panel of strangers. The results showed that girls who had been abused earlier in life showed oxytocin levels that were tripled but there was no increase in cortisol levels. In girls who had not been abused, cortisol levels spiked and their was no increase in oxytocin levels.

Dr. Seltzer stated, “This is counter-intuitive. Oxytocin is a hormone most people produce when they’re having warm and fuzzy feelings. It’s associated with trust, feelings of security, and attachment – not the sort of things you would connect with stress. The question is: Are we looking at dysfunction. It may instead be an adaptive response. Millions of years of evolution have gone into shaping developmental outcomes, depending on early experience.” Dr. Seltzer notes that short-terms rises in cortisol can help during times of stress but repeated spikes in cortisol can lead to health problems such as hypertension. Thus, girls who are placed in stressful situations early in life may adapt by reducing cortisol spikes to protect their overall health.

The research, “Stress-Induced Elevation of Oxytocin in Maltreated Children: Evolution, Neurodevelopment, and Social Behavior,” was published on the website of the journal Child Development. It may be accessed here.

Dr. Seltzer is a graduate of Binghamton University of the State University of New York system. She holds a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Wisconsin.

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  1. charles kellam, LCSW says:

    This is not so surprising to me. In my practice in a large mental health clinic in Harlem I have treated so many adults who were abused as children,as well as women who have been repeatedly involved in abusive relationships (often the same people). Adult survivors tend to associate with likely abusers, miss early cues that would expose an abuser and minimize what is happening until the process is very far advanced. To be able to return to ‘loving’ mode soon after the abusive episode ends and not make a further issue of it is somewhat adaptive if you cannot or will not leave the situation or seek outside help. The feelings of helplessness felt by the child with her need to calm things down to avoid even worse thus play out in passive reactions by the adult victim. The main human motivation is not to do what we want or need, but to feel what we need to, even if what we do to achieve that is self-destructive.

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