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The Truth About Hugs, Oxytocin, and Mental Illness

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Social media is a high-powered magnet for misinformation. Last Saturday, my Facebook feed became a trough of pseudo-science. The bulk of it was with specific regard to depression and anxiety disorders.

If we are to believe all the widespread wisdom, oxytocin (a nonapeptide hormone best known for its role in lactation and parturition) is the way to “literally kill depression.” When I inquired about sources, I was directed to articles with misleading headlines like “Can Cuddling Cure Depression?” This particular article is subtitled, “Oxytocin to help with depression,” and nowhere within does it justify itself. The article’s author, Siobhan O’Connor (of Prevention magazine), offers no follow-up article detailing the results of the study she references, presumably because those results offer no weight to her words.

An image shared by A Mind Unleashed goes beyond the pale. The text of the image can be found in 91,700 Google results (as of this writing). That’s a lot of misinformation.

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The hug or cuddle so many insist can banish a neurological disorder is like throwing a cup of water on a house fire. Huggers who believe this are doing more harm than good when extolling the virtues of their few ounces of water extinguishing the flames of one piece of paper as the rest of a house burns – and ostensibly blaming the house for burning down anyway.

The clinical trial used as the springboard for all this hyperbolic hoopla has concluded and the results don’t support the memetic claims. The study’s lead author, Kai MacDonald, found that while oxytocin “caused a decrease in nonverbal behaviors that cut off social contact.” It also “caused an increase in anxiety over the course of the therapy session” among the 17 male psychiatric outpatients who received the dose rather than a placebo. MacDonald says the findings are intriguing, but emphasizes the need for more research into oxytocin and its potential therapeutic use and concludes, “Variability in responses seems the rule rather than the exception, so we need to look more at that before we routinely use intranasal oxytocin in this context.”

The effects of naturally occurring amounts of oxytocin on the healthy brain are well documented. The effects of naturally occurring amounts of oxytocin on the brains of those suffering with mental illness is also known: it’s minimal because the brain is dysfunctional. If naturally occurring oxytocin was an effective preventive or treatment for depression and anxiety, no one would suffer with these conditions, but people do and it’s because the cure is not just a few cuddles away.

To believe otherwise is to deny what someone is actually suffering with and dismiss their need for the treatment that would actually benefit them. Hugs, cuddles, and company can be effective supplements for those already getting the treatment they need. However, depending on the person and the severity of their condition, these things can be aggravating rather than relieving. Oxytocin-inducing activities are amenities for those feeling anxious or bummed out, but who are otherwise mentally healthy. They’re not preventives, treatments, or cures for any condition, disorder, or disease, much less those in advanced stages.

Prevention starts long before the possibility of problems and it requires more investment than the occasional, obligatory gesture. Regular, consistent, dependable stimulation not only heads off most potential trouble, it also allows vested others to see signs of trouble and get that trouble addressed long before a full-blown problem develops: Children need to play outside. New mothers need assistance and sleep. Shut-ins and the elderly need companionship and to contribute. Those living far from home need contact and support. Those working long hours need control over their work time and to see the value in their contributions. Everyone needs sunlight, laughter, friends, regular opportunities to move their bodies, and access to healthy food and water.

The insistence that there must be another way to treat the disorders and diseases we can’t readily see comes from the desperate attempt many people still make to minimize the very real, very physical conditions of depression and anxiety. We tend toward what’s easiest rather than what’s most effective because the latter often requires more work. Mental illness of any kind cannot be hugged away or scared off by company. If you try hugging someone who is depressed, don’t be surprised if they resist your every effort with what little energy they still have. If you try hugging someone in the middle of a full-blown anxiety or panic attack, don’t be surprised if you’re accidentally or intentionally thrown to the ground. Set aside what you think they should need and get them the help they do need.

Those of you who are suffering with depression and/or anxiety have enough on your plate without adding the long-held, preposterous notion that you could somehow have prevented your ailment or could somehow now treat it on your own, so please don’t believe this. If you haven’t sought out or received help yet, please do so. Call 1-800-273-8255. You don’t have to be suicidal or in active crisis to call and get help. You know your ups and downs, and your good days and bad days. You don’t have to wait until you’re down and things are bad. You can call when you’re up on a good day so the person you’re going to be on a bad day gets the help you need.

About Diana Hartman

Diana is a USMC (ret.) spouse, mother of three and a Wichita, Kansas native. She is back in the United States after 10 years in Germany. She is a contributing author to Holiday Writes. She hates liver & motivational speakers. She loves science & naps.
  • Aer O’Head

    Thanks for throwing a bit of reality into the mix. In my opinion, we have Paul Zak (“Dr. Love”) to thank for most of the misinformation circulating about oxytocin and its properties. He even persists in presenting himself as a neuroscientist, even though his education and degree were in economics.

  • Victor Lana

    This a necessary and compelling article for our times. I am amazed about the amount of advertising time on TV allotted to drug companies. We are being overwhelmed with what is “good” for us to “take” rather than finding natural and alternative ways to approach being healthy. The side effects alone of advertised drugs scare me away from taking anything more than a baby aspirin.