When exposed to high-stress situations, the normal physiological reaction is for the body to release a hormone called cortisol, which prepares people for a fight-or-flight response to the stressor. However, according to a study done at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the laboratory of psychology professor Seth Pollak, this reaction does not occur in girls who experienced physical abuse in their developmental years.
The study stemmed from an experiment in which a group of boys and girls, ages 8 to 11, were placed in front of a panel of strangers and asked to do on -the-spot math calculations and give impromptu speeches. While most of the children responded to the situation with the expected cortisol rush, “there was a specific group from our experiments who did not follow the usual pattern, and in fact they followed the opposite pattern,” said Leslie Seltzer, a postdoctoral researcher involved in the study.
The subgroup Seltzer was referring to was composed of girls who had a history of child abuse. Their hormonal stress reaction was an increase in a hormone called oxytocin, which influences people to form attachments and trust and is typically associated with more inviting, happier situations.
This reaction reveals useful information about the coping mechanisms developed from early onset abuse, but the increase in oxytocin levels can also help explain patterns of more troublesome behaviors later in these girls’ lives.
“We found that possibly, due to this reaction, girls who have this early experience engaged in sexual behavior earlier on, got pregnant earlier, and ultimately ended up more prone to riskier behaviors,” Seltzer said.
In today’s society, these tendencies are often seen as socially unacceptable. However the researchers in Pollak’s lab argue that this release of oxytocin is actually an adaptive reaction developed over thousands of years to give people who’ve had these experiences a leg up to make up for the traumatic effects of the abuse.
“We may not actually want to change this because it may actually be an adaptive strategy regardless of the fact that these behaviors are social ills of modern western society,” said Seltzer.
Pollak’s lab discoveries of this release of oxytocin have also lead to new insight in other kinds of psychological studies. For example, research being done on the effects of dysfunctional adult relationships can now be explained in some cases by examining a person’s history of abuse instead of looking solely at his or her adult behavioral choices.
“This is the first time that those kinds of hormonal patterns have suggested that it may not in fact be a result of their adult relationships but something developed earlier in life,” Pollak said.
The reaction to the release of Pollak, Seltzer, and their colleagues’ findings created a lot of buzz on the popular social news website, Reddit. The press release received over 160,000 hits, which is more than any news story that has ever come out of UW-Madison’s website.
“The comments on that Reddit thread I think are incredibly moving and telling and of course heartbreaking,” said Seltzer. “There are so many individuals who have suffered from the effects of physical abuse.”
There are many situations in life that can lead people to engage in risky or somewhat negative social behaviors. Findings like those of Pollak and his colleagues can help predict which individuals are more likely to go down these paths, making it easier to administer help in dealing with them.
Seltzer said on the future impact of their findings, “we hope that in the future we can discover the roots behind what we consider to be socially maladaptive social behavior and we can help more people later on.”