Oxytocin, stress, and the amygdala

August 20, 2012

Any conversation about sex and stress must always start with a discussion about the amygdala. Stressful emotional memories are all processed then stored by the amygdala, or, amygdala’s, as there are actually two of them. Recent brain imaging studies have shed much light on the power of the amygdala’s. It is a critically important part of our emotional structure. 1. The Amygdala is a sexually differentiated organ meaning that it is different in men, women and even homosexuals. 2. The amygdala holds tremendous sway over our sex lives. Erections and orgasms are triggered in the amygdala. The ability to feel specific sexual desire, or preference for a certain food, the ability to feel love and affection for a specific gender, all complex emotions, including the ability to feel religious ecstasy is made possible by the amygdala. What does a straight Palestinian woman and a male homosexual Jew have in common? Hint; it’s not a strip of land. Most homosexual men and straight women have almost identically constructed amygdala’s. vis a vis, most straight men and lesbians have identically shaped amygdala’s. 

We now have proof positive that the amygdala is where we bury the sense memories of good and bad things that have occurred to us over the course of our lives: the lies, the betrayals, rip offs, rape: these are all stored in the amygdala. Terrors, fears and phobias are all stored in the amygdala-and the hippocampus. If you fell in love with a girl and she walked out on you wearing a yellow dress, every time you saw a yellow dress it would trigger the emotional memory of her. Emotional memories of pop songs are buried in the amygdala. Your memory of how she smelled is harbored in the amygdala. The amygdala is directly involved in the perception of sexual pheromones. The amygdala is factual, visual, nasal, tactile and auditory. Because it possesses facial recognition neurons its job is to constantly survey our environment for items and objects that are of emotional significance to remind us of the dangers from a certain faces, places, scenarios and keep us hyper vigilant, aware of negative patterns, sometimes to the point of paranoia. 

The amygdala controls all aspects of social emotional and sexual functioning. Electrical stimulation of the amygdala induces uterine contractions, milk production, ovulation and erections in males. The amygdala also controls cortisol. Most of you know cortisol as the fight or flight hormone. I call it poison because it is toxic and a chemical weapon of brain destruction. It’s also the belly fat hormone. The fact that cortisol toxic is irrelevant to the amygdala. Still, oxytocin keeps cortisol in check. Its job is to come in, round it up and route it back to the kidneys, the bladder and out. None too soon. If it didn’t toxic cortisol would eat away at the hippocampus, a major pleasure center of the brain.  

Brain imaging studies have shown us that oxytocin does a good job of keeping the amygdala balanced. Oxytocin is so effective at supporting the amygdala that it actually helps us to forget negative experiences. Without oxytocin there would be no reprieve from old hurts. Freud understood that there are times when forgetting is very beneficial. An extreme case of this is when soldiers in the field, under the constant stress of explosions occasionally manifest total amnesia. Or, a woman who is brutally raped is unable to help in the investigation because she has completely erased it from her conscious mind. This is cortisol at work, protecting us from endlessly traumatic memories. So effective is oxytocin at mitigating fears and phobias that in the wild when an animal is threatened oxytocin helps turn their terror into a life preserving still-motion. In such moments of terror they become very, very, still without panicking. This is Mother Nature’s way of insuring the survival of the vulnerable in the jungle, not to step on that twig and give up its location.