Category: Relationships

“Love Hormone” Oxytocin Linked to Domestic Violence

“Love Hormone” Oxytocin Linked to Domestic Violence

00Anger, Attachment, Domestic Violence, Emotion Regulation, Featured news, Oxytocin, Relationships July, 15

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For years the scientific study of relationships has centered on the hormone oxytocin. Made in our brains and traveling through our blood, oxytocin is said to be the physiological glue that brings humans together. It makes us trust and become attached to one another.

During childbirth, oxytocin is released in large amounts to help facilitate uterine contractions, to encourage milk production during lactation, and to enhance maternal-child bonding. The hormone can also offer relief for chronic pain sufferers and is released during sexual intimacy, connecting us emotionally to our partners.

Oxytocin is known for its ability to strengthen social bonds. But as hormones are complex, surprising new research points to a potentially dangerous side of oxytocin: High levels may be associated with relationship violence.

Because of oxytocin’s associations to social behaviour, researchers have studied the use of oxytocin to treat interpersonal symptoms of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and personality disorders. In 2003, Eric Hollander, psychiatry professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, showed abnormal oxytocin levels in people with ASD. When he administered oxytocin to them, it improved speech comprehension and recognition of emotions, important factors for establishing relationships.

Paul Zak, economist at Claremont Graduate University, says that oxytocin is responsible for behaviours like empathy, cooperation, and trust. In one study, he tempted participants with money, and found that those who inhaled oxytocin, compared to a control group, were more willing to give their money to a stranger. That is, those in the experimental group were more trusting.

Since oxytocin is naturally released during intimate moments, Zak prescribes eight hugs a day to make us happier and warmer people. But as with all medical science, oxytocin is complicated. And its catchy nicknames may be misleading.

Recent research by psychologist Nathan DeWall at the University of Kentucky and his colleagues demonstrated that oxytocin may be a factor in abusive relationships, if the abusive individual is already an aggressive person.

DeWall initially measured the underlying aggressive tendencies of male and female undergraduates. Participants were randomly split into two groups and unknowingly inhaled oxytocin or a placebo spray.

DeWall then created stressful situations that are known to elicit aggression. He asked the subjects to give a public speech to an unsupportive audience, and later experience the uncomfortable pain of an ice-cold bandage placed on their forehead.

Individuals then rated how likely they would be to engage in specific violent acts toward their current or most recent romantic partner; for example, to “throw something at [their] partner that could hurt.”

Oxytocin increased inclinations toward intimate partner violence (IPV), but only in participants who were prone to physical aggression.

Similarly, a study by Jennifer Bartz, a psychiatry professor at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, shows that oxytocin hinders trust and cooperation in persons with borderline personality disorder, which is characterized by pervasive instability in moods, behaviours, and interpersonal relationships.

Notably, DeWall’s experiment took place in a laboratory setting, and it’s an open question as to whether this finding is generalizable to actual violent behaviour in domestic relationships.

DeWall explains that oxytocin is linked to maintaining relationships by keeping the ones we love close. For those with aggressive tendencies, preserving a relationship can mean controlling or dominating the partner with physical and emotional abuse.

In his book The Other Side of Normal, Harvard psychiatrist, Jordan Smoller explains that prior trauma in relationships gives a “negative colouring” to trust and intimacy. Oxytocin is still released when unhealthy relationships form; it just becomes associated with relationship trauma and contributes to unhealthy attachments.

Oxytocin is imperative for human connection, but it seems that past experience and interpersonal predispositions complicate oxytocin’s social-bonding capabilities.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, approximately 960,000 domestic violence incidents occur every year. While only in its preliminary stages, DeWall’s research helps us better understand the complicated minds of offenders, and offers hope for preventing domestic violence.

– Shira Yufe, Contributing Writer, The Trauma and Mental Health Report

– Chief Editor: Robert T. Muller, The Trauma and Mental Health Report

Copyright Robert T. Muller

This article was originally published on Psychology Today

Social Media Cannot Fix ‘Being Alone’…Nor Should It

Social Media Cannot Fix ‘Being Alone’…Nor Should It

00Featured news, Friends, Media, Relationships, Self-Esteem, Social Networking May, 15

Source: Federico Morando/Flickr

As Facebook turned eleven this past February, I became acutely aware of my various virtual connections. I can tweet about what I am having for breakfast, or post a photo of my cereal to Instagram, and so on.

But is being virtually connected an effective way of interacting with others? Gary Turk, writer and director of “Look Up,” a short film that went viral over this past weekenddoesn’t think so.

According to Michelle Drouin, a professor of psychology at Purdue University, people use technology for different reasons. For example, individuals with secure attachment – those who are able to maintain trusting relationships and possess a good sense of self – tend to use text messaging to arrange meetings and check in, but save personal conversations for face-to-face contact. But those with insecure attachment styles are more likely to use texting for reassurance or the creation of artificial distance in relationships.

Sherry Turkle, M.I.T. professor and psychologist, characterizes the problem as one of not knowing how to be alone. To manage that fear, we seek to connect virtually, yet we are also afraid of real intimacy and use social media and technology to control how we connect. She refers to this “edited version” of a real conversation as the Goldilocks effect –having not too much, not too little, but a just-right amount of comfortable contact with others.

But, edited controlled conversations can lead to a lack of empathy. Since we cannot see our friends’ reactions we are unsure if our true intention was received. And, we cannot always read the emotion or tone of a comment and can overreact or become anxious over varying interpretations. The comedian Louis C.K. notes this impact on empathy as the reason he will never get his daughter a cell phone. He also thinks we use our cell-phones and social media accounts to avoid uncomfortable situations or deep emotions.

When we experience this “half-communication” with family or friends, we are left feeling unheard and lonelier than before.

The mere presence of a mobile phone in a room during a conversation reduces the feeling of closeness and connection between individuals, say Andrew Przybylski and Netta Weinstein, psychologists and professors at the University of Essex. The presence of the phone reminds us of our social network, other connections we could be making, and divides our attention. This same divided attention creates the feeling of not being heard, so we feel less certain of our ability to trust or connect with the other person.

Louis C.K. thinks what we really need is to turn the phone off and re-connect with ourselves. Being virtually connected is not the same as true connection.

As noted, Turkle considers the driving force of the Goldilocks effect as the fear of being alone. To improve our connection with others, what we need to learn is how to be fully present, and to be fully present, we first have to be able to sit with being alone.

The ability to be alone, to be in “solitude,” is not necessarily the same as being lonely.

Some benefits of solitude include being free of the scrutiny of others, allowing for more self-expression and creativity, time spent in self-reflection, and time to re-charge and renew.

Turkle thinks that time alone in conversation with oneself builds the skills necessary to engage in conversation with others. She is not against technology, but does think we need to find a balance and rethink how we are using technology. Drouin’s research does not fault the media. If not Facebook or Twitter, we would find other means to control how we interact and avoid the scary aspects of aloneness and intimacy.

There is increasing support for the idea that we need to re-balance. Social media is not a cure for loneliness.

But if I find that posts and tweets are leaving me wanting, then it is up to me to contact my friends and family to engage in more meaningful communication.

– Heather Carter-Simmons, Contributing Writer, The Trauma and Mental Health Report

– Chief Editor: Robert T. Muller, The Trauma and Mental Health Report

Copyright Robert T. Muller

This article was originally published on Psychology Today

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I Feel Your Pain: The Neuroscience of Empathy

00Empathy, Featured news, Neuroscience, Relationships, Stress April, 15

Source: Empathy Sand Sculpture/photopin

“I saw you doubling over and it felt like a shot right through me. I didn’t see any blood and there was nothing that scared me. Just you, in your misery, and a horrible sensation…I could feel your pain.”

This was my mother’s explanation for fainting while watching the doctor treating me in the operation room.

While fainting from another person’s pain may be uncommon, it brings into view an interesting aspect of human experience: the ability to relate to and feel the sensations of others.

Empathy is understanding and experiencing emotions from the perspective of another, a partial blurring of lines between self and other. We put ourselves in the shoes of others with the intention of understanding what they are going through, we employ empathy to make sense of their experiences.

Pain empathy takes the concept of empathy to the next level, describing physical sensations occurring to others. The concept has been portrayed in the form of sympathetic pregnancy, men reporting symptoms similar to those of their pregnant partners.

A subset of motor command neurons, mirror neurons are thought to be responsible for these sensations, firing in our brain when we perform an action, or when we observe someone else perform an action. These neurons can make you feel like you know what the other person is feeling. Witnessing someone getting hit by a ball, you feel a twinge of pain too.

Originally discovered in primates, mirror neurons have been used to explain how humans relate, interact, and even become attached.

Mirror neurons connect us to others. Neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran, at the University of California, has described mirror neurons as dissolvers of physical barriers between people (he even nicknamed them Gandhi neurons), explaining that it is our skin receptors that prevent us from getting confused and thinking we are actually experiencing the action.

Though not entirely responsible for empathy, mirror neurons do help us detect when another person is angry, sad or happy, and allow us to feel what the person is feeling as if we were in their place.

Ramachandran suspects that mirror neuron research will lead to understanding purported mind reading abilities, which may in fact have an organic explanation, such as a strong empathic occurrence in which one’s emotional/physical sensations are experienced by the other.

Mirror neurons are important in learning and language acquisition. Through imitation, vicarious learning allows for the construction of culture and tradition.

When malfunctioning, mirror neurons may have a big impact. Individuals diagnosed with autism have difficulty with empathy. And as Ramachandran suggests, it is indeed mirror neuron dysfunction that is involved in autism.

The discovery of mirror neurons also helps us rethink other concepts, such as human evolution. Ramachandran says that mirror neurons are what make culture and civilization possible because they are involved in imitation and emulation. In other words, historically, to learn to do something, we have adopted another person’s point of view, and for that we’ve used mirror neurons.

Empathy allows for intimacy and closeness, and mirror neurons provide evidence that humans are biologically inclined to feel empathy for others. More than just an abstract concept, empathy seems rooted in our neurological makeup.

My mother fainted because she couldn’t endure my pain. Perhaps my suffering triggered great anxiety that her body was unable to manage. Or maybe she physically felt my pain.

Mirror neurons are the interface that joins science and humanities. The connection allows us to reconsider concepts like consciousness, the self, even the emergence of culture and civilization.

Indeed, it’s not surprising that Ramachandran compares the discovery of mirror neurons in psychology, to the discovery of DNA in biology.

– Contributing Writer: Noam Bin Noon, The Trauma and Mental Health Report

– Chief Editor: Robert T. Muller, The Trauma and Mental Health Report

Copyright Robert T. Muller

This article was originally published on Psychology Today

love is war, feature2

Love Is War: Post Infidelity Stress Disorder

00Anger, Attention, Cognition, Dreaming, Empathy, Featured news, Health, Hormones, Infidelity, Memory, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Relationships, Self-Esteem, Sex, Sleep, Stress, Trauma March, 15

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Blind-sided by the one you love, the one you married.

Learning about your spouse’s infidelity can be emotionally and physically devastating. The emotional damage is reflected in what some mental health professionals call Post-Infidelity Stress Disorder (PISD), for the stress and emotional turmoil experienced afterward.

Psychologist Dennis Ortman, author of Transcending Post-Infidelity Stress Disorder, describes the term as “not to suggest a new diagnostic category but to suggest a parallel with post-traumatic stress disorder, which has been well documented and researched.”

In Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), re-experiencing the trauma repeatedly is the first of three categories of symptoms described. The disorder is marked by flashbacks of war for veterans, nightmares of the accident for car wreck survivors, and painful memories of abuse for survivors of intra-familial trauma.

So too, in PISD husbands and wives will replay the painful realization of betrayal.  Even after the initial fall-out, people will have recurring thoughts of their partner with another.

Psychologist and certified sex therapist, Barry Bass, adds, “Like trauma victims, it is not unusual for betrayed spouses to replay in their minds previously assumed benign events,” those times when their spouse became defensive when asked a simple question, or the late nights at work, or the text messages from unnamed friends, all of these become viewed as possible deceitful acts.

The second category of symptoms for PTSD, avoidance and emotional numbing, is seen in PISD as well.  Rage or despair that comes after the initial shock of discovering the infidelity can be followed by a state of emotional hollowness.  Formerly pleasurable activities lose their appeal.  Those who were cheated on sometimes withdraw from friends and family and describe feelings of emptiness.

The last category of PTSD symptoms, hyper-vigilance and insomnia, can also arise for those dealing with infidelity.  Sleep patterns become erratic; and concentration becomes a challenge, affecting work performance and family life.

PISD can have physical consequences as well as emotional ones.  The stress of discovering infidelity can lead to what has been dubbed broken heart syndrome, also termed stress cardiomyopathy.  The American Heart Association describes symptoms such as sudden chest pain, leading to the sense that one is having a heart attack.  Physical or emotional stressors, such as a loved one passing or major surgery trigger a surge of stress hormones that temporarily affect the heart.  The condition typically reverses within a week.

Despite the stress, there is life after an affair.  Due to the symptomatic similarities, therapists are now beginning to use PTSD counseling techniques to help couples either stay together or move on.

Exposure and cognitive restructuring are techniques used when dealing with traumatic memories.  In exposure, spouses are asked to gradually imagine those heart-wrenching moments and to cope with them gradually, whereas cognitive restructuring substitutes irrational thoughts, feelings, and behaviours induced by the trauma, with adaptive ones.

Counselors use these “trauma focused” explorations with clients, sifting through the distressing memories and aversive feelings, to help build the client’s self-esteem and confidence in dealing with the betrayal or loss of the relationship.

Therapists are also working with their clients to help them understand the unique reasons that led to the infidelity.  Understanding why the affair occurred can help both people.

Along with help from family and friends, wounds can be bandaged and trust restored.  Infidelity trauma and the time and strength involved in recovery remind us that love, like war, can have its casualties.

– Contributing Writer: Justin Garzon, The Trauma and Mental Health Report

– Chief Editor: Robert T. Muller, The Trauma and Mental Health Report

Copyright Robert T. Muller

Photo Credit: Daquella Manera/Flickr

This article was originally published on Psychology Today

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Why Does Anyone Love Men Who Won’t Love Back?

10Anxiety, Attachment, Bias, Featured news, Health, Media, Relationships, Sex February, 15

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You’ve seen the character a thousand times—the mysteriously sexy male protagonist. The lone wolf.

He saunters into women’s lives, gives them a wink, and they trip over themselves to gain his affections. Little do they know, he is incapable of such basic inclinations as love, having in fact buried his emotions years ago in the corners of his cold heart. Naturally, he becomes even more desirable, and the women who were tripping over themselves before, are now desperately crawling after him. This cannot last forever, and the lone wolf must leave. And so he does, leaving a trail of broken hearts in his wake.

The plot has appeared in many Hollywood movies, from classic westerns to gangster films to the James Bond series. Even romantic comedies have jumped on the bandwagon, with jaded, rejecting players who finally meet “the one” and struggle to learn how to love.

50 Shades of Grey, the film based on the novel about a fictional BDSM relationship, just hit theaters. Anastasia, the female protagonist, is portrayed as a normal, healthy young woman, while Christian Grey is the king of lone wolves—though presumably all lone wolves are the de facto kings of their prides.

Christian Grey has all the typical trappings of the tall, dark, and mysterious stranger. He refuses any type of romantic relationship, claiming to not be a “flowers and romance kind of guy.” He forbids Anastasia from touching him or even making eye contact during sex. Though we may shake our heads and claim we would never endorse such a relationship, the book series has sold over 100 million copies worldwide.

A quick perusal of most fan-generated lists of the sexiest fictional male characters reveals our obsession with solitary, rejecting men—James Bond, Indiana Jones, George Clooney in pretty much anything, Batman, Edward Cullen (whose heart is literally dead)—and the list goes on.

We love characters who can’t love us back. Though there are slight differences, the Christian Greys and James Bonds of the world are strikingly reminiscent of the dismissive-avoidant attachment style.

Briefly: The dismissive-avoidant style is characterized by discomfort with intimacy or feelings of vulnerability. Being emotional or dependent, for such people, is equated with weakness. Hollywood has ensured that we find this type of character irresistible. It’s hard to find a movie that doesn’t frame the solitary male as desirable. By the same token, it’s rare to find a “clingy” (or anxiously-attached) character portrayed in a positive light.

Of course fiction is fiction, but pop culture permeates our norms. It’s hard to ignore the influence on our vocabulary and perceptions of self and other. Who doesn’t secretly want to be as cool as James Bond? As nonchalant as Don Draper? Or, for that matter, as flippant as the avoidant Mary Crawley of “Downton Abbey”? Nobody wants to be the clingy ex-girlfriend or the nagging mother-in-law.

So why do dismissive-avoidant types get all the screen time, portrayed as the coolest-of-the-cool while the anxiously attached are stereotyped as clingy and annoying? Is being stoic and rejecting really better than seeking too much affection?

It’s important to draw a distinction between what actual dismissive-avoidant individuals are like and Hollywood’s portrayal of them. It’s not that being dismissing-avoidance gives you physical agility, a six-figure salary, or an arsenal of quippy pick-up lines. More likely, you would have frustrating intimate relationships, a higher likelihood of mental health difficulties, and an underlying anxiety kept at bay by defensiveness. Films often portray such individuals without the negative aspects we would more clearly see in real life.

So why continue to portray dismissive-avoidance in such glowing terms?

It sells.

Imagine if, in the first James Bond film, Agent 007 had settled down with Honey Ryder in a gated community with two kids and a dog. There would hardly be a chance for a 25-film franchise. To keep milking the character, he must never be tied down. The character rarely changes. And the producers hit “reset” when they start creating the next film.

Although 50 Shades of Grey is far from the main culprit, it is symptomatic of our masochistic submission to dismissive-avoidant characters.

But I suppose there are worse ways to spend an evening out.

Guest Writer: Aviva Philipp-Muller, The Trauma and Mental Health Report

Chief Editor: Robert T. Muller, The Trauma and Mental Health Report

Copyright Robert T. Muller

This article was originally published on Psychology Today