Boosting recovery rather than buffering reactivity: Higher stress-induced oxytocin secretion is associated with increased cortisol reactivity and faster vagal recovery after acute psychosocial stress

Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2016 Dec;74:111-120. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2016.08.029. Epub 2016 Aug 31.


Animal models and human studies using paradigms designed to stimulate endogenous oxytocin release suggest a stress-buffering role of oxytocin. We here examined the involvement of stress-induced peripheral oxytocin secretion in reactivity and recovery phases of the human psychosocial stress response. Healthy male and female participants (N=114) were subjected to a standardized laboratory stressor, the Trier Social Stress Test. In addition to plasma oxytocin, cortisol was assessed as a marker of hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA-) axis activity, alpha-amylase and heart rate as markers of sympathetic activity, high frequency heart rate variability as a marker of vagal tone and self-rated anxiety as an indicator of subjective stress experience. On average, oxytocin levels increased by 51% following psychosocial stress. The stress-induced oxytocin secretion, however, did not reduce stress reactivity. To the contrary, higher oxytocin secretion was associated with greater cortisol reactivity and peak cortisol levels in both sexes. In the second phase of the stress response the opposite pattern was observed, with higher oxytocin secretion associated with faster vagal recovery. We suggest that after an early stage of oxytocin and HPA-axis co-activation, the stress-reducing action of oxytocin unfolds. Due to the time lag it manifests as a recovery-boosting rather than a reactivity-buffering effect. By reinforcing parasympathetic autonomic activity, specifically during stress recovery, oxytocin may provide an important protective function against the health-compromising effects of sustained stress.

Keywords: Cortisol; Heart rate variability; Plasma oxytocin; Reactivity; Recovery; Stress.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Anxiety* / metabolism
  • Anxiety* / physiopathology
  • Female
  • Heart Rate / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / metabolism*
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System / metabolism
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System / physiology*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Oxytocin / metabolism*
  • Parasympathetic Nervous System / metabolism
  • Parasympathetic Nervous System / physiology*
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System / metabolism
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System / physiology*
  • Stress, Psychological* / metabolism
  • Stress, Psychological* / physiopathology
  • Sympathetic Nervous System / metabolism
  • Sympathetic Nervous System / physiology*
  • Vagus Nerve / physiology*
  • Young Adult
  • alpha-Amylases / metabolism


  • Oxytocin
  • alpha-Amylases
  • Hydrocortisone