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Sound of mother's voice releases hormones that calm stress

Kathleen Blanchard's picture

For women studied, the voice of their mother was found to release hormones that are as powerful as a hug to calm stress. Researchers have shown that just hearing mother’s voice releases the “love hormone” oxytocin, and the calming effect is just as powerful as physical contact.

Oxytocin is a stress relieving hormone that has been the subject of much study – it is the hormone that is released when a mother nurses her baby. To find the calming influence of the voice of a mother, researchers measure oxytocin levels among a group of seven- to 12-year-old girls placed in a stressful situation. The girls were asked to solve math equations in front of a panel of strangers. Researchers compared oxytocin levels in three groups of girls.

One group watched a neutral video, another received in-person hugs from mother, and a third group called their mother on the phone. Researchers found that just hearing mother’s voice had the same calming effect as a hug.

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Biological anthropologist Leslie Seltzer from University of Wisconsin-Madison conducted the tests and says, "The children who got to interact with their mothers had virtually the same hormonal response, whether they interacted in person or over the phone. It was understood that oxytocin release in the context of social bonding usually required physical contact.” Seltzer says, “it's clear from these results that a mother's voice can have the same effect as a hug, even if they're not standing there."

The effect of mother’s voice for reducing stress was found to last long after the anxiety producing situation ended. Seth Pollak, psychology professor and director of UW-Madison's Child Emotion Lab says, “By the time the children go home, they're still enjoying the benefits of this relief and their cortisol levels are still low."

Pollak adds he has been observing students who call their mothers on cell phones after exams – and now he understands why. He says, “Maybe it's a quick and dirty way to feel better. It's not pop psychology or psychobabble." He also says the findings that a mother’s voice has a physiologic effect that calms and releases oxytocin “is really exciting.”

Lots of social species use vocalization, and more studies could tell us if animals respond the same way as humans who respond the same way to a mother’s voice as to a hug. Pollak says, “We're curious to see if this effect is unique to humans.” The effect of a mother’s voice can calm the nerves, offering lasting relief from stress and anxiety.

Proceeding of the Royal Society B